Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Salem Schools Looking For a Home—and Accessibility

Salem Community Charter School

As reported by the Salem News, the new charter school, Salem Community Charter School is looking for space.  Museum Place is one possibility they’re looking at;  the former Saint Joseph’s Rectory is another.

As well, the Saltonstall School is being renovated and Salem is scrambling to find space for their students, and for a special-needs program at the Collins.

The rectory will need a year’s worth of work before it is useable as a school.  The Boston diocese did not offer their other properties such as St. John’s School and one official has speculated it is due to ADA issues.

A regular member of the commentariat at the Salem News weighed in on both stories with a refrain I am too familiar with as a member of the disability community in Salem.  To paraphrase:  “Why do we have to serve a small minority of students.  Forget that touchy-feely stuff of [disabled kids].  It’s an emergency—use the parochial schools!”

(It’s an emergency;  does that mean emergency no-bid contracting?  The member of the commentariat is a Tea Partier and I presume for less government and taxation and against the charming “emergency” measures that have often concealed thefts of the public purse.  I’m getting off the point here.)

Here’s a scenario the hardest-bitten conservative can relate to:

John Jones is a decorated veteran.  A wounded veteran who came home from Afghanistan or perhaps Iraq.  There’s no way he’s gonna get up and down stairs unless he rolls.  Downhill, possibly not under his own control.

He has kids.  He has a daughter, a true daddy’s girl that goes to the Saltonstall, or perhaps the new charter school or the Academy charter school.

His girl isn’t one of these special-needs snowflakes;  she’s a normal active girl.  Except that she’s an athlete and a ball player and there was that unseen posthole in the outfield one day when she was running out a grounder.

She’ll be hopping around for some time.

Now, Dad is deciding on schools, perhaps his family’s moved to Salem or his girl is making a change.  Remember choice?  That’s what the charter schools were supposed to be about.  Choice, choice, choice!

You will tell Dad the vet, wounded for our sins (“freedom isn’t free”, mind?), that he and his daughter cannot participate as parent and child in their own school system?

Good luck with that.

While many people use patriotism to worship respect our soldiers, few of them realize something I’ve thought of.

If you count all the veterans still living from all wars, and those that are wounded and disabled, I suspect they don’t make up a large number.

In Salem, I have heard estimates that 20% of Salemmites have a disability.  Not all of them are of school age, of course.

I am certain that the 20% is not all made up of veterans.

Yet if I suggested that  veterans should not get help because their numbers are so few, I’m certain I would be assaulted in an alleyway.  (Freedom isn’t free…)

I have no animosity towards veterans—I’m too young to have ever spat upon a Vietnam veteran, and have never said a word of disrespect to them (perhaps, I have done this to the politicians who task them, but…)   Salem’s veteran groups are natural allies of the Commission on Disabilities and always will be.

I have to wonder why the diocese of Boston is not aggressive with its surplus properties.  Despite what Rand Paul would have you believe, in Massachusetts, any given building does not have to be made ADA accessible to current codes merely as if the authorities waved a pixie wand and made it so.

The requirement to make a building ADA compliant per current code very much depends on the use of the building, the age of the building and the intended use of the building.  There were several revisions to Massachusetts building codes for handicapped access and by the current law, a building constructed say, in 1978, only has to meet accessibility requirements for 1978.  I have several large (and large-print) binders with all the laws to date.

If a building is used for general business purposes, it may or may not need to be brought up to ADA access.  Often in Salem, buildings have been repurposed and have never been made accessible because there were very few if any renovations performed.

A benchmark the Commission often discusses is the “one-third rule” or “30% rule” or “hitting 30%”.  That refers  to the current value of the building.  If any proposed renovations exceed 30% of this value, the building must be brought fully up to ADA and Massachusetts code.

Even then, developers and architects have considerable wiggle room.  The law does not say absolute accommodations, merely reasonable accommodations.  The Mass. Architectural Access Board (MAAB) will grant variances if the regulations are burdensome or do not benefit.

A few years ago, the state renovated a home in North Salem to use as a group home.  By the letter of the law it would have needed an expensive elevator.  The developer convinced the MAAB that the only space that the public would access was the ground floor.  The ground floor of the building was brought up to code with HP parking and no steps, but there didn’t need to be an elevator.  

I’ve been in St. John’s School before, and is not so much a charming old fashioned parochial school as it is a dump, no disrespect to Catholics meant.  There are stairs everywhere.  It could be impossible to get variances for this or any of the other school buildings involved.

Don’t forget, too, that the staff and teachers have to use the space as well.  People get old and infirm, or have a negative encounter with an icy front step.  If you think there’s controversy over accommodating students, just wait until it’s a teacher with a grievance!

I have to wonder if the diocese fears that the values of their properties have fallen so much that any renovations at all to them would require them to be fully up to code.  After all, it isn’t only handicapped access at stake but also electrical, plumbing, fire safety and communications cabling that need to be upgraded as well.

Whatever the case, this is something you can’t blame on the special-needs snowflakes, “those people” or the ADA activists.  Salem schools are indeed in a pickle.  But they would be anyway even if you deported all the disabled to Lynn.

1 comment:

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