NORTH MAYFAIR — When it rains, some students at Palmer Elementary put away their school books and bring out the buckets.
A leaking roof has dripped into classrooms and hallways for years, disrupting learning, damaging plaster and at times forcing the school to close off one of its two stairwells.
"These problems have lingered at the school for some time — 10 to 15 years," said Alex Burki, president of Friends of Palmer, the school's booster organization.
"I found a document from 2008 that literally could have been written today. It's all the same problems," said Burki, whose two sons attend Palmer, 5051 N. Kenneth Ave.
Now, Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) says the roof will finally be fixed.
Public records show that between fiscal year 2013 and 2017, CPS spent $440,000 in capital funds on Palmer, nearly half of which went toward providing air conditioning. In 2015, the district reported $68,800 in roof repairs.
While the school's administrators have been working official channels to make a case for a new roof, in recent months Friends of Palmer and members of the Local School Council had joined the fray.
The groups held separate meetings with representatives from Chicago Public Schools to air a laundry list of concerns that not only included the need for a new roof but safety issues with school's 15-year-old "temporary" module, which houses classrooms for fourth- and fifth-graders, and complaints about the dirt field where children play (if it hasn't turned into a swamp after a rain).
"They did say sort of loosely, 'We know about it ....' but there was no real plan for getting these things rectified," said Burki.
Students and staff are holding up their end of the bargain, said Burki, earning a Level 1+ performance rating from Chicago Public Schools, the highest ranking, but the district is failing Palmer.
"This is a great school. The facilities do not reflect that," she said.
Parents approached Laurino (39th), Burki said, and asked: "What do we have to do to make something happen? What is it that we need to do to get these things addressed?"
"She said, 'Make some noise,'" Burki said.
So that's what parents did.
In late September, they posted a petition to Change.org, which to date has garnered more than 300 signatures, and began bombarding CPS leadership and elected representatives with calls and emails.
"You have been heard," Laurino said in her Sept. 27 email newsletter to constituents.
The alderman shared a copy of a letter she sent to CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and Board of Education President Frank Clark (see below), in which she urged prompt action to "correct the deplorable building conditions" at Palmer.
"There's construction tape and little barricades around the areas where there's been leaking. It's in unacceptable condition there," Laurino told DNAinfo.
One of the sticking points has been paying for the roof's replacement.
Laurino had previously told parents money would not come from a new Tax Increment Financing district that's being proposed to help fund a $60 million strip mall in the ward and would also funnel dollars toward improvements at Gompers Park.
On Thursday, the alderman announced that CPS had informed her it would foot the bill to replace Palmer's roof, with an estimated price tag of $10 million to $15 million.
"I understand it’s very costly and hard to keep up with old buildings, but we’ve really been focusing on this issue with the principal these last six months, and she’s been very helpful and supportive of moving forward with it," Laurino said.
"There are other issues we’re working on, like getting those mobile units replaced and getting the tech aspects up to speed, literally, but the first-and-foremost issue has been to get the roof replaced,” she said.
According to the alderman, work would begin in summer 2018, when the school is clear of students and staff and construction crews could have access to the building.
CPS spokesman Michael Passman confirmed the district's commitment to a roof replacement at Palmer.
CPS's 2017-18 capital plan includes $73 million for priority roof projects and $30 million for emergency/unanticipated facility repairs.
"Palmer Elementary's roof is one of the highest-need capital projects in the district, and after consulting with members of the school community we will be moving forward with the installation of a new roof to address this pressing need," Passman said via email.
Burki was cautiously optimistic that progress would be made at Palmer.
"We're pleased to hear about the roof," she said. "But we will continue to voice our concerns and advocate for a safe, sound and permanent addition and suitable outdoor play space."
Additional reporting by Alex Nitkin.
The leaking roof has led to crumbling plaster in classrooms throughout the school. [Friends of Palmer]
Parents say students have to set out buckets to capture drips from the leaking roof. [Friends of Palmer]
Repairs were made to the school's roof in 2015, but leaks persist. [Friends of Palmer]
Parents have also complained about the school's field (aerial view above and ground level below), which gets ground to dust. After rains, parents say a lack of drainage turns the field into a swamp. [Top, Google Maps; below, DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Palmer opened in 1926. It was nearly closed in 1981 due to low enrollment but neighbors fought to keep it open. By 1995, the school was overcrowded. In 1997, an annex for sixth- through eighth-graders (below) opened and in 2001 a modular unit (above) opened for fourth- and fifth-graders. Parents want a permanent addition instead of a fragmented cluster of buildings. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Parents said they're concerned that the annex and module aren't as secure as Palmer's main building and aren't connected to the same alarm systems.
A satellite view of Palmer's campus. [Google Maps]
A snapshot of CPS capital spending on Palmer since 2013. [Chicago Public Schools]