Estimated read time: 11-12 minutes
GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Twenty years ago, the Gilcrest and Johnstown communities celebrated fresh construction projects at their high schools.
Construction crews breathed new life into decades-old high school buildings using millions of dollars approved by voters in the Johnstown/Milliken Re-5J and Valley Re-1 school districts.
In the past year, the two school districts have relived those projects in great detail on the cusp of their 20th anniversaries. They're not celebrating anymore.
During random inspections this past year, civil rights monitors discovered those schools didn't meet many requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now the districts stand to spend more than a quarter-million dollars to correct problems that never should have existed.
In some cases, systems designed to ensure the new schools complied with federal law failed in every conceivable way.
At Roosevelt High School in Johnstown and Valley High School in Gilcrest, more than half of the problems found during the random monitoring visits were from those large construction projects in 1995-96 that should have complied with 1991 ADA guidelines, documents obtained through a series of Colorado Open Record Act requests show.
Those two schools are the worst examples, but inspectors found an average of 15 or more violations at each of six high schools those inspectors visited in the past five years.
Some superintendents were shocked. They said they've never received a complaint. If they had, they said they would have been quick to address issues.
Disability advocates don't share the superintendents' surprise.
"We think that the state has not taken ADA compliance as seriously as they need to be," said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. "And this is the consequence when people don't take this seriously."
BUILT TO FAIL
The Colorado Community College System, the organization responsible for inspecting high schools and community colleges for civil rights compliance and accessibility, sent inspectors to Valley and Roosevelt this past year, Eaton in 2013, Briggsdale in 2012, and Fort Lupton and Weld Central in 2010. The organization randomly inspects nine schools each year.
It will cost at least $275,000 to bring those schools into compliance.
Greeley Central High School will host inspectors this school year.
The biggest violators, in terms of number of problems and cost to repair them, are Valley and Roosevelt.
The biggest problems haunting those schools originated with projects finished four to five years after 1991 ADA guidelines took effect.
Projects at each school passed through at least 10 layers of oversight. That oversight started and ended with state inspectors, something Reiskin saw as proof of the state's lack of interest in ADA compliance.
At Valley High School, the state Division of Labor and Public Safety approved architectural plans. During construction, the project received eight additional reviews, including electric, plumbing and fire safety inspections.
The division then issued a certificate of occupancy Nov. 10, 1995, overlooking 29 violations inspectors with the Colorado Community College System noted during the recent visit to Valley High School 20 years later.
Violations at Valley ranged from missing handrails on ramps to insufficient handicapped accessible parking spaces. Fifteen of those deficiencies were from the 1995 construction project.
In all, retrofitting solutions will cost Valley more than $100,000.
At Roosevelt High School, where inspectors found 21 accessibility violations, including 11 from the 1996 addition, it will cost $160,000.
"Oh my goodness," said Marty Foster, Johnstown/Milliken Re-5J superintendent. "Trying to come up with $160,000 when we're scraping for every dime we can get?"
When they learned about the violations, Valley Re-1 School District officials did not try to contact architects or contractors from the 1990s. Foster said he could not determine the general contractor for the 1996 project, and he said the district didn't reach out to the architect, DLR Group.
FCI Constructors was the general contractor for the Valley High School project in 1995. Steve Conklin, general superintendent for FCI Constructors, was with the company when it did the job. Most recently, Conklin was superintendent on site for construction of Prairie Heights Middle School, the new Greeley-Evans School District 6 middle school in Evans which opened in August.
Conklin has worked on many projects since Valley High School, but he said the company always has followed architects' designs to the letter.
The architect for the Valley project, Doug Hagen, who is now a freelance architect, didn't want to comment.
Andy Ernsting, spokesman for the DLR Group, which served as architect for 1996 construction at Roosevelt High School, said architects went back through the 20-year-old drawings line-by-line and found half of the violations weren't part of work DLR performed.
"There might have been a couple of things," Ernsting said. "But not $160,000."
Ernsting also said DLR architects identified some of the violations as stemming from work likely performed by a civil engineer not associated with DLR.
The DLR Group did renovation work at Aims Community College's College Center building on its Greeley campus.
In the end, the local school districts paid the cost of meeting the federal guidelines.
For Roosevelt High School, the money spent on compliance could have been used to pay salaries for three teachers to reduce class sizes, which at 22:1 are the highest among high schools in Weld County, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
"The bottom line on it is about $160,000," Foster said. "It's not cheap any way you look at it to go back and make all of these corrections. It was not a good time to have all that hit us, but I don't know if there is a good time for that."
INSPECTING AFTER THE FACT
Experts from the Colorado Community College System inspect buildings for ADA compliance because the system has oversight responsibilities for the state's career and technical education programs.
The organization's visits are random, and are not based on complaints.
The state is mandated by federal law to appoint that level of oversight. The bad news, for Weld schools which have had visits from the group, is the oversight comes after construction projects have been completed, forcing districts to essentially pay twice for the same project.
As it turns out, that's by design.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, like the Civil Rights Act before it, is a complaint-driven law. Generally, individuals must file complaints for problems to be dealt with.
It also means ADA guidelines are not part of building codes subject to inspection like electrical wiring or plumbing codes, said Maggie Sims, project manager for the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, a for-profit resource center that provides continuing education on ADA guidelines for groups affected by the law.
But any public building, including schools, designed or built after Jan. 26, 1992, should follow 1991 ADA guidelines, Sims said. Valley and Roosevelt high school construction projects from 1995 and 1996 would have qualified.
Superintendents say navigating the tricky territory of ADA compliance is beyond their districts' capabilities.
"We absolutely don't have anybody on staff that knows (about ADA compliance issues)," Foster said. "Who except somebody who was an expert in this would know? That's why you have to put faith in an architect, a general contractor."
Menda Ide, executive director of LaSalle-based nonprofit Access and Ability, agrees with Sims. Ide's organization advocates for people with disabilities.
Ide has two children with disabilities who attended the Valley Re-1 School District.
Despite her work and the intimate access to Valley High School she and her children had, Ide was surprised by the litany of violations inspectors uncovered this past year.
Ide, whose previous surname was Warne, isn't one to ignore problems, either. She once sued and settled with the Greeley Stampede over accessibility.
The one problem she remembers with the district was a new playground she said was less accessible than it was before it was updated. She brought it to Valley officials' attention and it was fixed, Ide said.
Ide's concerns, or lack thereof, demonstrate how easy it is for ADA compliance to slip through the cracks.
"The thing with public schools is . it's always been the, 'We'll fix it when somebody makes us,' mentality," Ide said.
Although Reiskin would prefer school districts get things right during construction, she seemed pleased there was some form of monitoring taking place in the state. Through her ongoing work as an advocate for people with disabilities statewide, Reiskin said she knows noncompliant conditions are pervasive. And, frankly, she's getting tired of it.
"The law's been around for 25 years," Reiskin said. "Especially with new construction, it's getting really hard to stomach, 'I don't know.'"
Colorado Community College System inspectors look for a multitude of things, but most of it boils down to one word: accessibility.
Accessibility means different things, depending on a student's particular physical limitations. Whether students can physically access a building or classroom is one part of accessibility. But other considerations, such as design that accommodates students with learning disabilities, visual or hearing impairments or other challenges, also must be taken into account.
Colorado Community College System inspectors check all of that and more.
High schools were criticized for lack of accessible bathrooms, no handrails on ramps, unpaved parking lots and ramps which were too steep. In all, Colorado Community College System inspectors identified 100 unique instances of noncompliance at the six Weld high schools inspectors have visited in the past five years. Fifty violations stemmed from construction projects — large and small — that took place after 1991 ADA guidelines were in effect.
Some superintendents have lashed out at the findings, citing a lack of complaints and pointing to small compliance infractions (the amount of force needed to open a door, for example) that cost thousands to fix.
Citing a 50-year-old ramp identified as out of compliance because its grade was 1 percent too steep, Foster said some of the findings really "stuck in my craw pretty bad."
"Nobody has ever complained once on this," Foster said.
However, Reiskin said district officials would be wise to fix the problems and move on. If it weren't a Colorado Community College System inspection, it could have been an even more expensive lawsuit, Reiskin said.
With the 25th anniversary of ADA guidelines this past summer, the U.S. Department of Justice is taking notice, too, Sims said.
Sims cites the U.S. Department of Justice's program, Project Civic Access, in which the department has taken action against more than 200 municipalities across the country — including six in Colorado — since 2000 as evidence.
"It really is a big thing," Sims said. "The Department of Justice is really focusing in, particularly on government agencies."
OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Although the state has shifted responsibility for school construction approval to different agencies in the past 20 years, current inspectors still aren't specifically checking for ADA compliance.
Twenty years ago, when the Johnstown and Gilcrest communities were celebrating multimillion dollar projects, the Colorado Division of Labor and Public Safety approved school construction. Then, it was the Division of Oil and Public Safety. Since 2010, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control has adopted building and fire codes for all public schools and two-year colleges in Colorado.
And does the division check for ADA compliance?
"Not specifically," said Rob Geislenger, section chief for the division.
Instead, the division uses accepted industry standards from the international code council. If there are ADA compliance deficiencies, Geislenger said, most would be addressed during plan review — the part of the process when the division reviews and approves architectural drawings.
Geislenger said things are better than they were 20 years ago, even if the process is similar.
"Prior to (Geislenger's division taking over), there weren't a lot of resources in Colorado dedicated to plan review," Geislenger said.
The result, for school districts like Valley and Roosevelt, is a system that has forced taxpayers to pay twice for the cost of one compliant structure. Superintendents like Foster, who don't have ADA experts on staff, throw up their hands and point to architects and state inspectors.
When it comes to how this could have happened, Ide takes it a step further, suggesting perhaps those architects and inspection organizations don't have an ADA expert on staff, either.
"Whatever process they come up with (to fix this), they need to have an ADA consultant, not just an engineer or an architect who took a couple of classes," Ide said.
Voters in those districts in 1994 (Valley) and 1995 (Roosevelt) agreed to property tax increases to pay for construction. Construction compliant with ADA at the time would have been less than 1 percent of the cost of construction, according to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.
At Valley High School, 1995 construction was paid for with a $22 million bond issue voters approved in 1994. About $6.5 million of that was spent on construction and renovations at the high school, meaning it would have cost $65,000 at most to make the building ADA compliant. When adjusted for inflation, that $65,000 balloons to what the district is paying now: About $102,000 to retrofit structures to comply with those standards.
At Roosevelt High School, where $8 million was spent on an addition in 1996, proper ADA compliance should have cost $80,000 or less. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $120,000 today, still less than the $160,000 the district spent to fix the problems.
It doesn't have to be this way, state disability advocates say.
ADA experts should be involved in all school and public building construction projects, they said. At the very least, they say, residents with disabilities should be involved.
"People with disabilities are a part of our community," Reiskin said. "So if you're not involving people with disabilities in management, and you're not reaching out to the communities (during projects), this is the consequence. This could have been prevented."
Information from: The Tribune of Greeley, Co, http://greeleytribune.com