Investigation: Seattle schools literally crumbling around students

Investigation: Seattle schools literally crumbling around students »Play Video

SEATTLE -- The dried, brown grass crackles under each footstep. The laughs of young children sometimes drown it out. They dodge weeds nearly ankle high and bound over blades of grass that seem to only get moisture and attention when Mother Nature casts an eye downward.

That's because there have been few eyes on the former Wilson-Pacific High School in Seattle lately. Those eyes would see in a school in disrepair with serious safety concerns.

Wilson-Pacific isn't alone. In schools all around Seattle, the dark passage of time hides serious problems that district leaders have known about for years. In 2009, the district commissioned a major report that outlined deficiencies, dangers and priorities for each school. The Problem Solvers learned many of those issues haven't been fixed.

Standing outside Wilson-Pacific's home school resource center, Melissa Taft laughs lightly when asked about the condition of the building. It's more like a laugh of pity.

"Looks like it's condemned? It does, doesn't it?" she said. Wilson-Pacific is home to a hodge-podge of small programs. Taft has seen the school continue to fall apart since her two children started. "Just not well-maintained at all," she said.

The Problem Solvers found that in many ways, the school has gone to seed -- literally. Dead grass and weeds are everywhere, while concrete is buckled and breaking.

Inside, the floor and ceiling are in disrepair. Asbestos warnings are plastered on many pipes. Electrical and phone lines are just dangling in the air. There's not much to look up to, either. Attempts to repair the banged up pipes and crumbling rain covers haven't gone well.

"But they're right next to old, rotting boards," Taft said.

The Problem Solvers showed parts of the video to Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda. He said the issues at Wilson-Pacific and others are a concern and could seem dangerous.

"Potentially, yes," he said.

Banda joined the district earlier this year and says the $694.9 million February levy vote could revitalize schools like Wilson-Pacific and others. He fully admits the district has made mistakes with maintenance.

"I think that at one point in time in history of Seattle Public Schools, that may not have been something that was something that was done with due diligence," he said.

At Gatewood Elementary, thick moss is growing on the roof.  The district was warned about it in 2009 and that the roof was "beginning to fail." Yet records provided by the district seem to indicate nothing has been done since.

At Arbor Heights Elementary, students have been warned not to drink out of pipes that are more than 50 years old. Records show there's no set timeline for a fix.

In the 2009, the tennis courts at Eckstein Middle School were said to be "in total disrepair" and "not usable." Nothing has changed since.

McGilvra Elementary had a big upgrade in 2010 with brand new synthetic turf. The rest of the school has essentially gone untouched. Records show that some doors are original and aren't compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Original" is the key word.

The heating and cooling system has been in operation since before World War I. It was installed 99 years ago and has "1913" stamped into the black iron on the side. The district's construction plan says they'll get around to replacing it at some point. There is no set date for ADA compliance, life safety repairs or fire sprinkler systems either.

Standing outside North Beach Middle School, Stacy Perdi shared her frustration with district planning and slow repair work.

"There's been some poor foresight on the Seattle school district's part," she said.

Perdi was shocked with the revelation that many of the schools we looked at have no fire sprinkler systems whatsoever.

"That's horrifying. That's horrifying," Perdi said.

The 2009 deficiency report called fire sprinklers a "condition five" priority -- an immediate concern district-wide. Instead, places like Wilson-Pacific and others got nothing. Perdi called it "scary."

"You just assume you're going to have fire sprinkler systems in place," she said.

But the Problem Solvers looked into the law. According to state fire codes, only major renovations or brand new school buildings require fire sprinklers. Nightclubs are treated differently. They have tougher rules than schools.

Tim Nogler is with the state building code council. He says after the deadly nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003, Washington passed a law requiring all existing clubs to go in and install sprinklers no matter how old the building. Schools were not a part of the law and requirements.

The district doesn't have to go put fire sprinklers into old buildings.

"Wow, that doesn't make any sense at all. Yeah. Why would that be more of a priority than our children?" Perdi said.

Nogler understands the frustration, saying, "I don't think that they're wrong. Obviously nightclubs are getting more attention."

Superintendent Jose Banda says putting in sprinklers and other fixes could actually do more harm than good.

"In old construction, you had a lot of materials that were used that were no longer allowed that potentially could be hazardous," he said.

Banda says he wants to install sprinklers in the schools but money has been the issue. He does not have a set timeline for the fixes. The district will likely raze some schools and completely start over, rather than fix individual problems. 

Small comfort for parents like Perdi and Taft who have heard promises for years.

"It's subpar. It is," Taft said.

The ravages of time of have been the problem all along.