January 8, 2009 at 1:12 pm

DPS academy issues plea for toilet paper

Letter sent home with students says school can't afford supplies, including trash bags, light bulbs.

DETROIT -- At least one city school is visibly bearing the scars of the district's financial woes with an appeal for donations of toilet paper and light bulbs.

This week, administrators at the Academy of the Americas sent a letter home with students asking parents and others to donate items "that are of the utmost importance for proper school functioning and most importantly for student health and safety" -- including light bulbs, trash bags, paper towel rolls and toilet paper. Students said the items were expected to be accepted at the front office starting Monday.

The district's "budgetary constraints" meant officials no longer were able to supply the necessities, Principal Naomi Khalil said in the letter to parents.

"We realize that the economic situation is stressful for our entire community, but we are asking for your collaboration. ... We thank you for your cooperation and we hope that as a school community we can pull together to guarantee the best possible educational environment for our children."

But the request angered some parents who believe it could unfairly burden them during the lingering economic slump.

"Right now, I can't even donate to myself," said Danisa Roldan, who has three children at the pre-K-8 school and was forced to move her family in with a relative after losing her home to foreclosure last month.

She and her husband had been laid off; Roldan has since found a new job, but said she still struggles to make ends meet and probably can't afford to buy the requested supplies.

The parent also worries other financial problems could plague the school. "I hope they don't close," she said. "I know things are bad, but now with this, I don't know what's going to happen. This is ridiculous."

School officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Joyce Hayes-Giles, vice president of the Detroit Public Schools board, said she had not heard about the issue before a reporter informed her, but she said no school should be without basic supplies.

"We should never be at that point," she said. "That should never, ever happen."

She said any principal suffering from such a critical lack of supplies should notify the central office immediately.

Hayes-Giles said she doubts that central office administrators would delay if they knew a school was so short on supplies. However, she added that she didn't know if Khalil notified administrators of the supply shortage.

Nate Taylor, chief of facilities maintenance and auxiliary services for DPS, said the district's problems are compounded by its deficit, which amounted to nearly $140 million for fiscal year 2008.

"If you are asking whether there are some areas that are low on toilet paper, I would say probably yes," Taylor said, but added there are also other schools that have excess supplies that can be shifted to those undersupplied schools.

He said he had not known of the problems at the school.

"We try to make decisions based on the health and safety of the kids, but as long as we have a deficit, we will struggle month to month," he said.

Still, Taylor said he did not believe the district's money woes necessitated a call out to parents and the community to provide supplies, adding that he would be able to locate toilet paper for the academy.

In 1996, Detroit Public Schools faced national embarrassment when then-Superintendent David Snead went on the "Today" show to face questions about school buildings that ran short on toilet paper and rationed it out to students.

Today, the district of approximately 96,000 students is struggling to trim the $140 million deficit.

Last month, the board fired Superintendent Connie Calloway, alleging poor job performance.

Calloway, who is on paid administrative leave from her $280,000 salary, is contesting her termination.

Meanwhile, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan on Wednesday floated the names of two nominees to serve as the district's emergency financial manager, a position that would have broad authority over all fiscal decisions in the district for at least a year, including budgeting and contract negotiations.

At the Academy of the Americas, Julissa Tinoco, 13, an eighth-grader, said she and other students were asked by their teacher Monday to bring toilet paper and other essentials because the school was running short.

The students weren't too happy about it, she said. "A lot of people were going up to the teacher saying that's stupid and why do we have to bring toilet paper to school."

There is such a shortage, she said, "I have to look from (stall) to (stall) looking for toilet paper. Why doesn't the district have enough money to pay for toilet paper? They should have enough money for that."

At least one student said some peers recently were asked to reduce their trash in hopes of limiting the number of garbage bags custodians replaced.

Eighth-grader Celeste Godinez, 13, said she found the letter request "ridiculous."

"I don't think it's fair that we're the ones who have to supply everything," she said.

"We should have the responsibility of doing our work and learning."