A school auditorium roof about to collapse. Dirty toilets. Rusty, leaking canned food. A leak in the roof with “fecal matter” located above a drop ceiling in a cooking area and mold nearby.
The findings from recent inspections by the state led the state’s education commissioner to send a stern letter this month to officials in one Eastern Kentucky school district, saying he was prepared to start moving students out of the school if things aren’t fixed.
The school in question is Cordia, currently operated as a K-12 public school by the Knott County Board of Education. The school facilities are owned by the Lotts Creek Community School, Inc. and leased to the Knott County Board of Education for $1 per year. The school had 223 students in 2016-17.
The campus opened in 1933 in a remote underserved area as a mountain settlement school.
Tim Crawford, an attorney for the Knott County school board, said students at the school are county students and the teachers are employees of the county school system, but the county board leases the school from the Lotts Creek Community School, so Lotts Creek Community School is responsible for fixing the problems there.
Lotts Creek Community School, Inc. Director Alice Whitaker said Thursday that the violations have been ‘addressed and corrected’ and she is awaiting reinspection. Whitaker and Knott school officials are waiting on a report from a structural engineer. The building in question was built in 1998 with private funds, she said.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, in a Dec. 11 letter to Whitaker and Knott County School officials, said the Office of Education Accountability had been investigating a complaint when officials found serious health and safety conditions on the Cordia campus, particularly the facility that houses the kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms and the cafeteria/auditorium.
“I am greatly concerned by the information that has been reported to me by KDE staff, OEA and other state agencies regarding conditions on the Cordia campus that threatens the health and safety of the students and staff at this school,” Pruitt said in the letter.
Inspectors found that a roof was about to collapse, that there was a major structural failure of a masonry wall and foundation and a failed fire alarm system in a school auditorium building.
Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said Thursday that Pruitt would not comment beyond the letter.
Pruitt said in his letter that on Nov. 27 he sent staff, including a licensed architect and a safety coordinator, to the Cordia campus to conduct a health and safety inspection. On Dec. 1, he again sent KDE staff to the Cordia campus to join officials from the State Fire Marshal’s Office for additional inspections. Officials from the Department for Public Health conducted additional inspections on Dec. 4.
Numerous safety issues were documented by Kentucky Department of Education staff inspections on Nov. 27 and Dec. 1, and the Fire Marshal’s Report, which included a lack of warm water in restrooms; at least two urinals not functioning; inadequate water pressure; electrical safety violations; excessive occupancy loads of certain rooms; emergency lighting/exit signs not illuminated; numerous fire extinguishers dated 1998 without replacement, maintenance or inspections logs; a fire alarm malfunction in the elementary wing of the school building; flammable items located in electrical closet and a boiler not inspected since 2013. Inspections found dirty toilets in one instance, dirty walls in another.
Whitaker said the fecal matter noted in the inspection was mouse droppings. She attributed the cleanliness issues noted in the inspections to “carelessness” that should not have happened. “I don’t think it will happen anymore.”
Whitaker said that the Knott County Board is responsible for pest control and cleanliness. She said the Lotts Creek Community School is responsible for structural issues.
A Dec. 4 health inspection found canned food products with swelling, leaking, rusting or severe dents, and lack of properly maintained refrigeration units for potentially hazardous foods, a lack of accurate thermometers in all refrigeration and freezing units storing potentially hazardous foods, and improper thawing methods being used for potentially hazardous foods. A Dec. 13 follow-up inspection showed the score improved from a 74 to a 96.
Pruitt called on the school district to stop all school activity at the Cordia school gymnasium until the structural deficiencies and safety issues were fixed in that building.
Pruitt said if all repairs weren’t made by Jan. 1, his staff would withdraw approval of the current lease and the “Knott County Schools will ensure that the students assigned to the Cordia School are placed in other schools within the district on or before January 15, 2018.” Future approval by the KDE of any lease would be contingent upon future inspections to ensure the health and safety of the students and staff of the Cordia School, Pruitt said.
Crawford said the situation started with a complaint to OEA, which contacted KDE, which then brought in the fire marshal and other agencies.
County school officials were concerned about the facility even before the complaint to OEA, he said. As a result, the county had insisted on a provision in the last lease, in 2016, that Lotts Creek hire a structural engineer to evaluate the facility.
“There was a concern by the school system that there needed to be some upgrades,” Crawford said.
However, the county board was not aware of the extent of the health and safety issues at the Cordia school before being notified by the state.
Crawford sent a letter to Whitaker asking that Lotts Creek comply with the lease by having the structural review done and also to fix the problems identified by the fire marshal and other agencies.
Whitaker said that had been completed. She said Cordia had historically fought having the school closed and consolidated because students in the area would have to travel 45 minutes to the county’s central high school and couldn’t easily participate in extracurricular activities. In addition to local students, some students are from other states and other nations.
The Knott County school district recognizes the Cordia school is important to the community and would like to keep it open if possible, Crawford said. That decision will depend on whether the state says the school is safe, however. The separate Lotts Creek Community School provides additional services to the community such as an afterschool program.
“I know that all parties involved desire the best for the students of the Cordia School and the community of Lotts Creek,” said Pruitt. “I am also aware of the important history and original mission of the (Lotts Creek Community School). However, neither the mission of (Lotts Creek Community School) nor the mission of the Knott County Board of Education will be served if our students and staff are subject to conditions that are not conducive to learning and that threaten their health and safety.”