District school employees who were placed on leave last month because of unclean conditions at Shaw Junior High called their situation a "witch hunt" and a "miscarriage of justice" yesterday and blamed the school system's central office for Shaw's problems.
Anthony Smith, Shaw's head custodian, and Chris Barnett, the school's cafeteria manager, said they repeatedly filed work orders with the central office for broken equipment. But many times the repairs were slow to take place or never completed, they said, contributing directly to the unsanitary conditions for which the school was cited.
"This is a miscarriage of justice," said Smith, who, along with Barnett, is among the six Shaw employees on paid leave pending the results of an investigation. "They want to blame the workers when they fail to provide the items to ensure clean and safe schools. When I submit a work order, there's nothing done about it. Why have I been pulled into this sink hole? It's just unfair."
Central office staff acknowledged that work orders are not always addressed immediately because the orders are ranked according to their urgency. The school system will not hold Shaw staff members responsible for any problems that are determined to have resulted from equipment failures beyond the school's control, officials said.
"The central office is responsive to service requests," said Wendy Gee, who oversees food service for the school system. "But the school is responsible on a day-to-day basis for do-it-yourself fixes."
Smith and Barnett spoke out for the first time at a midday news conference attended by Shaw Principal Gregory Thomas, who is also on leave but chose not to speak. They were supported by several officials from the unions that represent school employees.
The Shaw employees were placed on leave Oct. 28, after city health inspectors cited unclean conditions at 14 D.C. school cafeterias over the previous two months.
At Shaw, health inspectors in September found standing water around a kitchen drain, an obstructed grease trap with live roaches and flies, a refrigerator with an internal temperature of 56 degrees and two dead mice near the ovens. The dumpster area had standing water, and the kitchen bathroom's door was propped open most of the time, the reports said. Inspectors returned Oct. 3 and 18, and each time the grades improved.
Yesterday, Smith produced several documents that he said were printouts showing that there were still dozens of outstanding work orders for Shaw that the central office had not completed. Among them were May 22 and June 26 requests to fix the kitchen freezer and a June 19 request to flush the kitchen drains. He also said he made several unheeded requests to clean the obstructed grease traps, and he said he talked several times with a central office building service manager, Linda Magazine, about the school's problems.
Smith, who has worked at Shaw for two years, said he was so aggressive in filing work orders to get equipment repaired that he was once lectured by Magazine for submitting too many requests.
Gee said that Magazine might have talked with the Shaw staff but that it does not excuse Shaw employees of the responsibility to do their jobs.
Union officials representing the employees said that budget cutbacks at the schools and in the central office have contributed to the difficulty of keeping Shaw and other schools clean. Central office maintenance staff has been reduced and is not able to fulfill a large backup of work orders, union officials said.