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Tough code siphons fun from walls of schools

By BILL STEVENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


Some photographers came to see me the other day about redecorating their office. Here was my advice: Have fun. Make it a place that reflects your artistic personalities. Give it some color and life. Where are you going to put the hot tub?

Okay, so I was kidding about the hot tub part. But I believe these places where we spend so much of our lives should have space for things that make us feel good. My walls are full of such items: a photo of Jan Glidewell in jail (it was a charity event); a poster for Animal House; a photo of me dancing with my true love; a water color that my daughter painted of me when she was in first grade.

In a decade of occupying the same office, I have devoted most of the wall space to one thing or another. You might not like my Dallas Cowboys clock or care that I have Muhammad Ali's autograph, but it means something to me.

If I were a Pasco public school teacher, about 80 percent of it would have to go.

You were planning to hang those leprechaun figures and maps and pictures of Ireland to teach children about St. Patrick's Day? Better think twice. Maybe you were considering a current events wall or a section highlighting the most creative essays of the month? Better be careful. You wouldn't want to start a fire.

Teachers, having been preoccupied by such little things as 30 kids who often like to talk at the same time, are just now starting to realize that the long arm of the law is about to rip down those really neat Smithsonian posters of humpback whales or maybe last week's Top of the Class page. If the classroom walls aren't 80 percent clean and clear, then the local fire inspector might order them into compliance.

The rule has been in the National Fire Protection Association's code book for years, but ignored in Pasco and most other places, probably because fire in schools has been about as rare as Buccaneers' championships. But because the Legislature recently passed a law that requires local fire marshals to inspect the schools, the 80 percent rule is being enforced.

Teachers, including the one I live with, are not amused. The veterans, at least, already were cynical about all the "local control" stuff generated by politicians in Tallahassee, but none of them ever figured Big Brother would tell them what could go on the walls in their classrooms. The advent of FCAT, grading schools and vouchers were bad enough, and then somebody decided 80 percent of their classrooms should be cold concrete.

This is one that even the highest-ranking Pasco officials have trouble accepting. "I still have a child in school and I'm the last person who would want anyone there unsafe," said Superintendent John Long, "but I don't think this is going to make any difference."

But it's the law, Long said, and so it will be obeyed. To ignore the codes would be to invite the kind of trouble Lee County schools faced last summer when fire inspectors threatened to shut down classrooms because of violations. Of course, they weren't focused on wall space so much as alarm fixtures and smoke detectors. The school district had to hire fire watchers at an enormous cost while workers brought the schools into compliance.

Susan Rine, who oversees elementary schools in Pasco, is a former classroom teacher herself. She says teachers generally will do anything if they can see the logic, "but this one is difficult." Still, Rine said, teachers will find creative ways to display their students' best work and other material that highlights their lessons.

Teachers will get used to another rule, no doubt. They always do. But for those who get so much joy from decorating, from bringing their walls to life, the job just got a little less fun.

- You can reach Bill Stevens at (727) 869-6250 or by e-mail at stevens@sptimes.com.

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