Longform

We Have a Problem

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The trouble went beyond malicious pranks and a personnel civil war, however. A faculty survey and 17 anonymous letters to the School Board conveyed a damning message about Apollo. The letters, some of which administrators speculate came from the same person, lament a school that had taken a quick turn south.

On November 2, 1999, a person identified as a parent wrote, "I've never seen such dedicated teachers and [faculty] with such low morale. I've never been in such a position where I am afraid to sign this letter for the retribution it could have upon my child attending Apollo Middle School."

The letters from teachers make the same points over and over again. One teacher writes in May 2000, "I am about to fill out my transfer papers. I will be leaving Apollo Middle School with great sadness. I have taught there for twelve years. I have given all I am as a teacher and a person to this school. I can no longer deal with Mrs. [Aimee] Zekofsky and her attacks against veteran teachers who like myself made Apollo what it was.... Mrs. Zekofsky has destroyed our school in the two years she has been principal. We have lost so many excellent teachers and more will leave this year."

School Board member Lois Wexler says the anonymous letters prompted her to investigate Apollo's troubles. "It was very disturbing to receive those indicators of unrest and unfair treatment at the school," she says. "Talking to [teachers], I realized there really is a problem here." She adds, however, that it is difficult for the school board to respond to anything unsigned.

In November 1999 Apollo's faculty council surveyed teachers with questions based on problems brought up by the first few anonymous letters. The survey results paint a picture of a staff in crisis. In a January 2000 memo to faculty and staff, Zekofsky summarized the results. Of 110 employees, 59 responded. Of these:

33 people said that the "overall picture of Apollo is that a critical situation exists";

31 said they "felt frustrated by poor planning pertaining to events, assemblies, and open house";

34 "feel that staff morale is low";

33 feel that there are "problems with safety, discipline, and security at the school"; and

18 said they were "considering a transfer due to the seriousness of the situation."

The written comments from teachers show extreme polarization. The statements range from "There is an extremely high level of incompetence," to "I do not feel the principal is vindictive in my meetings with her. It appears she has excellent leadership abilities." Few comments represent anything close to a middle ground.




The camera pans for about ten seconds across tiles all but hidden by coffee-color dirt, the amber residue of a mysterious fluid, and crumpled toilet paper. Sinks clogged with dark debris jut from the walls. Above them, dingy, half-corroded mirrors produce reflections resembling grainy Polaroids. There are no soap dispensers and no paper-towel holders. The bathroom stalls do not have doors, and the toilets are white, porcelain islands in a sea of dried-up brown liquid. Months-old used sanitary napkins poke over the edge of their designated receptacle. Outside the bathroom, debris clogs a water fountain, dirt left by rats clings to the walls, and a thick layer of dust coats bent air filters. The camera lingers on a fat cockroach browsing through the gunk.

These images -- with their eerie, fetid simplicity -- would be fitting opening shots for a low-budget 1950s horror flick about roaches taking over the world. Instead they appear in Maria Farrell's ten-minute home video documenting Apollo Middle School's custodial problems.

During Zekofsky's second year, as the Sosa/Parnham imbroglio raged, Farrell began her own battle against the school's visible filth. The bathrooms were so disgusting, Farrell says, that many kids refused to use them throughout the day.

Farrell, who lives in an immaculate house in Pembroke Pines, is a small woman with long chestnut hair, bangs, and a high voice. Outside the one-story home, her half-moon driveway is lined with orb-shape bushes. She is something of a Donna Reed for the 21st Century, brimming with intellectual curiosity, compassion, and common sense.

Though she makes it a point to stay neutral amid the hostility between teachers and Zekofsky, Farrell doesn't hesitate to pin the sanitation problems on the principal. The combination of low wages and poor leadership, she says, gave custodians little incentive to do their jobs.

Farrell says when she started campaigning for a cleaner school, she had thought she was tackling a fairly straightforward problem. But for months and months, Farrell lobbied for Zekofsky to force custodians to do their jobs. Farrell held countless meetings with Zekofsky and the school's assistant principals -- all of which she meticulously documented in a thick three-ring binder full of typed notes and e-mails. Farrell talked to district administrators, to school board members, and to the school's custodians. Nothing happened.

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Emily Bliss