We Have a Problem

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She even ripped from the wall and placed on Zekofsky's desk an overflowing receptacle for used sanitary napkins that she speculated had not been emptied in months. Everyone, including the principal, told Farrell they would do something, but their words rang empty.

Last spring Farrell listened to so many student complaints about the dirty school that Farrell organized a spring cleaning activity. About 10 percent of students and several faculty members and administrators (including Zekofsky and her husband) showed up on a Saturday to do an exhaustive cleanup of a school that seemed as though a broom or mop hadn't touched it in months.

However, when she saw a whole new layer of dirt build up after the spring cleaning, Farrell says she realized the principal still hadn't gotten the message. "The inspectors come out, show a violation. The principal signs off on it. They come again. The principal signs off on it," Farrell says, lamenting that there was no mechanism in place to make the principal actually do what inspectors prescribed.

Only recently, Farrell says, has the school's cleanliness improved -- but Farrell isn't stopping there. This past month, Farrell has turned up the heat in her quest to make Zekofsky do something about Apollo's lousy air quality. Last year, after hearing teachers' complaints of respiratory problems (coupled with her own daughter's stories of dry air causing her contact lenses to pop out in class), Farrell set up air monitors in several teachers' rooms to gauge carbon dioxide levels. Outside air generally has a rating of 200 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide; experts say inside air should never have more than 600 ppm. Farrell discovered that some rooms had ratings well above 2000 ppm; the teachers in those classrooms generally had above-average numbers of health-related absences.

Farrell has managed to convince school administrators to open the air conditioning vents more so new air comes in instead of recycling the air already in the school. That suggestion, however, did not help matters much.

On March 12 of this year, Farrell wrote a letter to Zekofsky, outlining the problem and presenting the data she gathered from her air monitors. "I am very concerned about the air quality at Apollo Middle School. It was brought to my attention last year and you and I have spoken about it several times," Farrell wrote. She included several pages of evidence that it is difficult for children to learn and teachers to lead classes when the air is so difficult to breathe.

To date, Farrell says, Zekofsky has not responded to her missive.

"I don't understand why my principal couldn't have taken care of this," Farrell laments. "I don't understand why something so serious as the health of our employees wasn't addressed."

The stale air provides a convenient metaphor for what many teachers saw as a suffocating professional atmosphere. After the end of the 1999-2000 school year last June, at least 35 employees bolted from Apollo. "A lot of people were physically and emotionally sick from her," one teacher says. "It's not like it's just you and five others. It's you and twenty others."

Both Broward schools superintendent Frank Till and area superintendent Samuel Gregg admit that an uncommonly large number of teachers have left the school. Till explains that, while the high numbers merit an examination of the school, he hesitates to make assumptions about why teachers are leaving. He points out that teachers move for many reasons.

"I can say that quite a few people have left," Gregg says. "I don't know why so many teachers left."

Clearly, though, Gregg has had ample opportunity to learn about the problem. In late July 2000, about 15 Apollo Middle School teachers filed into a conference room inside the South Area Office on SW 90th Avenue in Cooper City. With Gregg and South Area Director Jackie Box presiding, the teachers and staff members went around the room and read from written statements. Their stories concerned false accusations, threats, and worries about a steep decline in school discipline. But one common vein ran through all the testimony: a deep resentment -- sometimes even a hatred -- for Aimee Zekofsky.

"We are a group of teachers who are dedicated to Apollo Middle School and its students. I have worked at Apollo for 15 years and I am incredibly saddened by what has taken place recently," Lesa Parnham read -- from the same letter quoted earlier in this article. "I know the concerns that other people are going to be bringing to you are professional as they should be. Unfortunately mine are of a personal nature because Mrs. Zekofsky chose to involve herself in a very personal part of my life. I was too shocked and intimidated at the time to keep her out of it, as she is the principal and has a reputation for being vindictful [sic]."

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Emily Bliss