The Intolerable Condition of Ida B. Wells High School


Eloise Blaine , Staff Writer

It’s no surprise that the condition of Ida B. Wells High School (IBW) is less than adequate: water leaking on the floors, ceiling tiles missing, brown water flooding the bathroom sinks, just to name a few. For decades the building has been rotting away, leaving students and educators in an awful environment. The major reason why Portland Public Schools (PPS) struggles with building maintenance is because of their budget. PPS is drastically underfunded, meaning that when a problem arises, it makes it very difficult for PPS to fix it. This evidently causes more problems, making the building more uncomfortable and unbearable to be in. 

Most of the schools in PPS are deteriorating. IBW was built in 1954, and has not been remodeled since. For years, the school has struggled with its deteriorating condition, and especially after the recent pandemic, the situation has gotten worse. Recently, in the Woods and Metals hallway, there was a ceiling leak, and for over a week, brown sludge and water dripped into buckets on the floor. It caused disruption and interfered with several classrooms. Even after the leak was fixed, brown sludge remained on the ceiling. 

Many students have also complained about the state of IBW’s bathrooms. Several students have witnessed water leaking on the floor, ceiling tiles that are missing or broken, brown water coming from the sinks, and toilets being out of order. Una Allen, a freshman at IBW, said that when she is in the bathroom, “The paper towel dispensers are also always empty. Sometimes it’s just one, but sometimes it’s all of them, and I can’t dry my hands.” Empty paper towel dispensers and brown sink water is extremely unsanitary, especially in bathrooms. 

Furthermore, the lockers in the hallways are very hard to use. They’re old, run-down, and rusting. Sam Stevens, a freshman at IBW, was annoyed with how her locker works. “It’s usable, but it’s very wonky,” Stevens said. “A lot of the time I have to go past the actual numbers in order for it to work.” She said that because of this, it makes her a lot less likely to use her locker. 

It is also known that PPS has been reluctant to fix issues that come up, like repaving the parking lot until a full remodel begins. “The parking lot needs to be re-striped, and usually, that’s the answer I get from PPS: ‘Oh, you’re going to get a new school, so we don’t really want to re-do or repave the parking lot,’’’ said Erica Caldwell, IBW’s business manager. The fact that both teachers and students have to wait for a remodel for better parking conditions is unacceptable and unfair.

Caldwell also reported that if a ceiling or floor tile were to fall off, PPS would likely just patch it up, rather than fully fix it with new tile. “This tile came up here, and they just came in and patched it up with tape; it hasn’t been fixed yet,” said Caldwell. This sort of patchwork can be seen in most of the classrooms in IBW, along with some of the hallways.

Additionally, the bad conditions of the school are dangerous to people’s physical health. Water damage, like in the Woods and Metals hallway, or exposure to moisture can lead to fevers, itchy eyes and skin, and in some cases, even developmental issues. The materials that the school was built with can also be detrimental to a person’s health. 

In 2016, according to PPS and reported by OPB, IBW (then Wilson High School) had 8 recorded cases of asbestos in the building. Asbestos, a fibrous silicate material, is resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion, meaning that it is extremely useful in construction. However, it has also been directly correlated with multiple illnesses, such as Asbestosis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD), and even cancer. Michele Whitmer, an author and asbestos expert, wrote an article on discussing how exposure to asbestos causes major diseases and health issues. “Scientific studies link asbestos exposure to several diseases, including cancers,” Whitmer said. “Mesothelioma is a type of cancer almost only caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos also causes asbestos-related lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.” Asbestos does not belong in a public school, and was outlawed in the 1970’s.

The reason why many schools are continuously suffering is because PPS is underfunded. Citizens of Portland have to pass a bond measure in order to raise enough money to fix the schools. If the bond does not pass, schools won’t get fixed. However, currently IBW does not have enough bond money to either fix or re-do the school, and in order to get enough money, the bond measure needs to be approved by voters. “We need enough voters to come to a voting,” Caldwell said. “So the next presidential election…so that’s where we’re at right now, we need the money.” She also reported that it would be very surprising if the bond didn’t pass. 

According to this information, we would be looking at a remodel of IBW between 2024 and 2028. In the meantime, we are stuck. Because of the reluctance of PPS to fix anything before the remodel, it is unlikely that anything major or minor will be fixed. This leaves us in a position where students and staff have to continue coming to school under unsafe, unhealthy, and unacceptable conditions.