MORRISANIA – When Mayor Michael Bloomberg strode into the auditorium of historic Morris High School last Thursday to deliver his State of the City address, the halls of the 114-year-old building carried the distinct scent of fresh paint.
In the days leading up to the mayor's Jan. 12 speech, maintenance crews painted stairwells and entryways, replaced lightbulbs, fixed a broken window and cleaned the building from tip to top, students and staff members said.
Sources in the building, which houses five small high schools, said the repairs were long overdue, but mostly cosmetic and directed at the visiting camera crews.
"They didn’t show the chipped paint, the dirt, the fact that we don’t have a lot of computers," said Frank Rivers, a senior at one of the small high schools, Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies, and a member of the student-led group Sistas and Brothas United.
Outside the building, trailer-like structures that provide extra classroom space were freshly painted - but only if they were situated near to a main entrance off of Boston Road. Meanwhile, the walls of units farther from the building were left peeling, a construction worker at the school said. The worker said employees of an unidentified agency made the recent cosmetic improvements, not his school-based construction team.
"There has been some work that’s been done by them so that the school looks good on TV," the worker said. "Anything that when you’re walking through and can see with the naked eye, that was painted."
Some students said the last-minute repairs reflected a school system whose priorities are out of whack.
"I’ve been in this school for three years, and they’ve never done any renovation," said Maraam, a junior at the Bronx International High School who only gave her first name.
"But just because he was coming, they fixed up everything that needed to be fixed," added the student, who is also a member of Sistas and Brothas United. The Bronx-based group frequently criticizes the mayor's education policies.
"They just made some improvements to make the school look better,” agreed Kevin Smith, a junior at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies. He said he saw workers apply a new coat of beige paint to a stairwell shortly before the speech.
A school staff member, who said the maintenance crews inspected elevators and fire alarms and replaced lights in the hallways and auditorium in the three weeks before the mayor's speech, said, "There was a window that was broken the whole time I’ve been here. That suddenly got fixed."
The mayor’s office said preparation at the school began a few weeks in advance, but added that event staff focused on cleaning and bringing temporary lighting equipment into the auditorium. The office also noted that construction has been ongoing at Morris for several years, which is apparent from the scaffolding and sidewalk covers surrounding the building.
"The school was already under construction, and there were touchups that were made as part of that construction," a spokesperson said. “As with any event, there’s going to be preparation around it.”
Still, students were glad to at least see some changes made. Miguel Rodriquez, an organizer for Sistas and Brothas United who works with Morris students, listed a slew of fixes that students said were completed in the weeks leading up to the event.
Then he quipped, “So our tactic now is to get Bloomberg to visit every school.”