Art on the walls makes a school environment beautiful, happy and bright – right? According to the FDNY, art on the walls can also make a school dangerous.

Last year, the fire department stepped up its inspections of public school buildings, adding the public buildings unit to three others that check into whether schools are meeting fire codes. Schools were warned if more than 20 percent of their wall space was covered with flammable materials such as paper and cloth, a frequent situation in a system where principals and students have long been encouraged to plaster hallways and classrooms with student work.

In total, FDNY cited approximately 1,500 violations in schools, and 500 of them were quickly fixed, according to an FDNY spokesman.

This year, the Department of Education gave principals a heads-up that the policy would continue. Although no policy has actually changed, principals were reminded of the specific fire code parameters this week, and the DOE is working with the FDNY, school facilities staff and the principals union to ensure compliance with the 20 percent rule, said Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman.

Many principals were caught off guard by the inspections and were worried about how their schools would be affected, said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals union.

“Some principals have expressed concerns to us that their schools will become very sterile-looking because the creative output of their children is very important, so they are trying to find some kind of balance,” she said.

Fourth-grade teachers at a Brooklyn elementary school said they returned to their classrooms this month September to find that the clotheslines that they had previously used to hang student work across the ceilings had been taken down. Although teachers have found ways to work around the crackdown, classrooms “just don’t look as bright and welcoming,” one teacher said.

But school and FDNY officials said aesthetic objections were no match for safety concerns.

“It’s not just about art,” said Jim Long, an FDNY spokesman. “It’s about the overall safety of the environment for students and teachers to work in.”

“Schools are proud of their students’ work and we’ll work with them to help them safely display it,” said Feinberg. “But our collective goal must be to ensure the safety of our students.”

In the letter to principals this week, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott assured principals that they would not be penalized if their schools display scaled-back decorations. The full letter is below.

9.7.11 NOTICE: ALL PRINCIPALS Displays of Student work in Hallways and Public Areas

Many of you are aware of the new FDNY unit which began inspecting schools last school year. The unit is charged with enforcing the Fire Code of the City of New York and pointing out violations of the code. Principals, as the persons in charge of the building, were asked to sign as the recipient for violations. The ISSUED TO line on these violations uses the building address or school number and does not use the name of the principal or person receiving the copy.

This year the FDNY will be asking you to sign only for violations for items under your control. You will be asked to sign for violations for Public Assembly Space overcrowding (when the space is programmed for more persons than the occupancy permit allows) or seating and table arrangement that is different than shown on the approved plans. You will be asked to sign for violations issued for corridor obstructions such as the placement of furniture in the path of egress.

We have worked with the FDNY, OSYD, and DSF to get approval for recording Fire Drill information in OORS. You will be asked to sign for violations if this is not done.

Violations for display of flammable materials in excess of the Code allowed limits will also need to be signed for by the Principal. The DOE and the FDNY have reached an agreement regarding these display that should go for to ease your concerns. The Fire Department is enforcing the Code regulations related to displays of flammable materials (paper and cloth are key examples) in corridors. Corridors are required to be free of obstructions and hazards to allow students and staff to safely exit the building in an emergency. The NYC Fire Code regulations limit the displays using flammable materials to not exceeding 20% of the gross wall area of the corridor. The FDNY Bureau of Fire Prevention understands the importance of engaging interest by displays of student work. The FDNY will accede to displays exceeding 20% of the wall area with certain provisos.

1) Displayed work must lay flat against the wall. Items protruding from the wall are not acceptable.

2) No flammable materials may be hung from the ceiling or suspended across the corridors. These types of displays expose a greater area for ignition. Further, heat banks up against the ceiling in fire situations and displays of this type present a critical hazard in a fire.

3) Freestanding flammable displays extending into the corridor, such as papier mâché trees, are not acceptable as they present potential problems during an evacuation. This type of display can be pushed into the path of egress and impact persons using the corridor.

4) There should be no floor to ceiling hangings in the corridor.

5) The amount in excess of 20% should be reasonable and done in moderation. The FDNY approval of amounts in excess of 20% should be looked on as a limited license, not carte blanche.

These limits have been clearly explained to those persons responsible for rating you, your school, and your programs. Your ability to work within the limits, and to use your and your student’s creativity to maximize the impact of the available areas, will be taken into consideration. You should rotate the displays, and review how best to present student work. It is not the amount of student work exhibited, but rather the quality of the work and the demonstration of process in the display that is critical.

Specific questions may be addressed to Volkert Braren at the Division of School Facilities. His email address is vbraren@schools.nyc.gov.