Asbestos removed, Essex school can reopen

September 07, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

The air is clear at Sussex Elementary School, but a troubled wind still blows.

The Essex school, closed last winter because of high asbestos levels, will open Wednesday with a new interior. And more than 500 Sussex students, most of whom finished the past school year at five separate sites, will be under one roof again.

"The building's fixed. We're ready to go," said Robert Sutton, who was in his first year as principal when unacceptably high asbestos levels were discovered in various parts of the building in January.

Although teachers and staff members joined their principal in sighs of relief as they put their classrooms back together last week, many were concerned about the loss of thousands of dollars worth of teaching aids and other materials -- many of which they had purchased or made themselves over the years.

"The building itself is really gorgeous," said special education teacher Kathy Brauer. "The loss of materials has us a little nervous."

When classroom contents -- stored in hundreds of plastic bags after being cleaned -- were returned to teachers in the past two weeks, many of their personal possessions and handmade teaching aids were missing, said Nancy Murray, a pre- kindergarten teacher and chairwoman of the school's faculty council.

"We have a tremendous concern about the lack of materials," she said. Many school supplies also were lost or discarded because they could not be adequately cleaned. Mr. Sutton said the science department was particularly hard hit because many of the materials were open or otherwise exposed to the asbestos.

But, Mr. Sutton said, "It can't be any worse than last year." He called the asbestos discovery, the subsequent school closing and student relocation, and the anxiety of parents the most challenging experience of his 20-year career.

"That's all behind us," he said.

Sussex is opening one day later than 146 other Baltimore County schools to give the staff extra time to get ready. More than 93,000 county students -- about 3,500 more than last year -- will be headed to elementary, middle and high school classrooms tomorrow.

The only other delayed opening is at Milford Mill High, which will start classes Thursday after a three-year, $18 million renovation.

One new elementary school, Seven Oaks, will open to about 600 students in Perry Hall. More than 30 elementary schools will begin all-day kindergartens -- one of the most prominent innovations of the school system's new superintendent, Stuart Berger. Sussex is one of the schools starting all-day kindergarten, but that development was overshadowed by the effort to get the school back together.

"I'm looking forward to a brand new year in a brand new school," said Karen Maddox, president of the Sussex PTA. Ms. Maddox, who has two youngsters in the school, said she "feels comfortable" that the school is safe. She said most parents agree.

"There's still some concern with parents, but that's understandable because of all we went through last year," she said.

Exposure to high concentrations of asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, a scarring of lung tissue, and has been linked to cancer.

The school, built in the mid-1950s, was finally cleared of asbestos on June 30. Then work crews began refurbishing the building -- installing new ceilings, lighting fixtures and floors; replacing bulletin boards and sinks; and painting throughout.

The school system spent $1 million to rid the school of asbestos and refurbish it.

"And that's $1 million we didn't have budgeted," said school department spokesman Richard Bavaria.

About $50,000 of the total was spent cleaning nine truckloads of materials removed from the school, said Reginald Ringgold, acting supervisor of the system's environmental section.

Originally, all materials were to be thrown out and replaced, according to guidelines proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. But after "an outcry from the teaching staff and the PTA," the school system developed ways for the abatement company to clean books and other materials, Mr. Ringgold said.

But many teachers are upset because materials that could not be adequately cleaned had to be discarded, along with other items damaged and destroyed in the process.

Many teachers had purchased the materials with their own money or made the items themselves over the years.

Second-grade teacher Terri Smith said she lost more than 500 hand-made teaching stations -- sections of bulletin board presentations designed to teach specific skills such as spelling or rhyming. She kept them in a portfolio in her classroom.

These teaching tools are difficult to put a value on, teachers say. Although the materials are inexpensive, making them takes a great deal of time.

Ms. Smith estimated that she spent $700 to $800 of her own money on materials in each of her first two years on the job. Many of those items were lost in the asbestos cleanup, she said.

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