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Louis Haynes was puzzled the first time he noticed that the lights were out on the school zone traffic sign at J. Will Jones Elementary. Maintenance crews opened the metal box attached to the sign pole and quickly diagnosed the problem.
The low-voltage battery, which stores electricity from solar panels atop the sign and powers the lights, had been stolen. Workers replaced the battery, and the flashing warning lights worked fine -- for a few days, anyway.
Then it was lights out again. Battery stolen. And stolen again. In a four-week period after the start of school in September, petty thieves swiped the originals as well as the replacement batteries. Haynes, the school's crossing guard at Chenevert and Stuart streets, looked up last week to see the darkened sign again. He's never seen a crime wave like this one in his 15 years of service.
"The batteries have been stolen at least three or four times this school year. The city will come out and replace them, and in one week's time, they'll be gone again," Haynes explains. "This is a problem all over the city."
Indeed, authorities report widespread problems in hanging on to the power sources for some 800 lit school zone signs in Houston. Officials say the thefts are so chronic that there are waits of up to three weeks for replacement batteries. At $160 per unit, the cost to the city is also rising sharply.
Houston officials say the signs seemed like a good idea when they were first installed two years ago to increase drivers' awareness of approaching school zones. They work in tandem with the traditional signs that warn motorists of the 20-mph school zone speeds during certain hours of the day. Those speed restrictions are still in effect even if the lights are not operating.
City electrical technician Ken Miller explains that some of the new signs with lights have been turned around -- away from approaching traffic -- while they are out of order, so as not to confuse motorists.
Jane Kelso, a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works, says the real mystery is the motive for the thefts; the batteries are virtually useless for any other purpose. They are too small and lack the power for motor vehicles, and are not adaptable for appliances or electronics, or even regular lights, for that matter.
Police and city maintenance crews initially speculated that the purloined power sources were perhaps being sold to scrap dealers for their lead content. However, Chano Velunzela of Gulf Coast Scrap says at the current market rate -- seven cents a pound -- lead is hardly worth its weight. That means thieves would need to lug in 100 pounds of batteries to haul away $7 in loot.
While the city oversees the traffic signs around schools, Houston school district administrators are the ones with the primary responsibility for safety on and near campuses. Mary Denmon, principal of Jones Elementary, put in a plea for action with Councilman Jew Don Boney's office. He says city staff told him they are redesigning the signs to thwart thieves.
Boney says the height of the easily accessible battery boxes will be raised to keep them out of the reach of passersby, and the locks and boxes will be strengthened so they can't be pried open as easily.
Kelso also says that the city is working on adding warnings to the school zone signs about the change from flashing lights to written hours. Officials are also considering changing the signs to a brighter color -- possibly neon green -- so motorists will readily notice them.
She appealed to the public to help nab the criminals. People should call the police if they see anybody but workers with official city vehicles tampering with the signs, she says. "This is important -- it could make the difference in a kid's life," Kelso says.
Crossing guard Haynes shakes his head at what's happened. "The lights have only been up here for two years, and we can manage without them. We've done it before," he explains. "Besides, you can't stop people from stealing; you can only slow them down.