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Sunday, October 18, 2009

When the Water Main Broke at De Diego Elementary School

On September 14th, 2007, the water main broke at Jose De Diego Elementary School in the 1300 block of Claremont in in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. The Department of Water was dispatched following this break to investigate. The subsequent inspection found enough problems with the schools plumbing that the commissioner of the Department of Water, John Spatz, sent a letter to CEO of the Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan informing him of the situation on September 21st of 2007. In that letter, Spatz recommended that water fountains in the school be covered until several problems are fixed. According the letter, Spatz' office believed the water was so compromised that it was no longer safe to drink from the fountains until several issues were resolved.

On the 24th of October of 2007, the Department of buildings sent out its own inspector to De Diego Elementary on what it termed a 311 call, or an inspection of high priority. Mike McGann was sent to De Diego Elementary School. The next day McGann filed a report with his bosses Frank Bathauer and Mario Olivella. That report found two pages worth of violations that included: fecal matter in the water system, contamination, and multiple compromises in the plumbing system that required immediate attention. That report was never filed. Instead, Bathauer called Alice Vera, principle of De Diego, to tell her that McGann had created "mass hysteria" the day before at her school and downplayed the violations McGann reported. Vera countered that in her opinion McGann acted professionally and all decisions were made in conjunction with her and her staff.

On the 31st of October, Commissioner Spatz sent a second letter to Duncan's office. In this letter, he informed Duncan's office that the Department of buildings would now be heading the investigation into the violations at De Diego School. Meanwhile, McGann's report still hadn't been filed (in fact, it's never been formally filed) and Bathauer was still maintaining the stance that the violations were minor and something not to "panic" over. Then, on November 20th of 2007, Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Buidings, Peter Ousley, sent Principal Vera a letter stating that conditions "do not represent conditions that are dangerous or hazardous". Despite this characterization, the water fountains were still covered and so on the 26th of November, Commissioner Spatz of the Water Department sent CEO Duncan his third letter suggesting that water bottles and hand sanitizer be brought into the school to make sure to deal properly with the situation.

On January 4th of 2008, a contractor was finally brought into the school. The contractor was Stanton Mechanical, a frequent recipient of city contracts. That's 125 days from the initial water main break and the kids had gone 111 days without functioning water fountains. Six days later Mario Olivella signed off on an all good order and wrote that all "permit codes have been met." The next day an anonymous call about De Diego Elementary School dispatched the city's Department of Health. DOH shut down De Diego School that day due to the water quality of the plumbing system, or the very thing given the all clear the day prior by Olivella. For the next six days the same Stanton Mechanical and a sub contractor they hired, Midwest Chlorinating, worked to fix the problems. On the 18th, Department of Water Commissioner Spatz sent a letter to CEO Duncan giving the all clear to the water system at De Diego Elementary School. The very next day Mike McGann was given a three day unpaid suspension by the Department of Water. In that meeting, McGann attempted to tape the conversation because he didn't have a union rep present. For this, on the 15th of February, he was issued a subsequent 15 day unpaid suspension.


Mario Olivella, in May of 2008, was indicted for bribery and corruption charges. Mike McGann challenged his suspensions to the H.R. Department of the DOB. He eventually won his case and had his suspensions reversed. He's since been transferred to another part of the Department of Buildings and believes he's a target of retaliation for this and other "offenses" that city's DOB machine views as unacceptable. In his estimation, the list of problems couldn't have possibly been addressed in the little time the contractor worked on them. As such, he believes the water is still compromised and could lead to all sorts of health issues for any of the 1000 plus students at De Diego School. Prior to arriving at the Department of Buildings, Peter Ousley worked in the management office at the County Building at 69 W. Washington when that building burnt down. The Department of Buildings has become a spot for political operatives and favorites of the Mayor to receive cushy jobs like Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner. Whistle blowers and others who don't go along are frequent targets of retaliations including unjustified suspensions, transfers, and winding up working with the Strategic Task Force which works in the roughest areas of the city. It's not clear that either the Department of Health or the Department of Buildings ever sent an inspector in after the 18th to make sure that everything was in fact fixed even though both had formal complaints. Two stories were written about this situation by the Chicago Sun Times, on the 23rd and 30th of November 2007. (neither is any longer available on line) The whole episode is yet another example of the Chicago Way.

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