'Discrimination' against older schools charged EAST COLUMBIA

June 15, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Del. Virginia M. Thomas says too many East Columbia schools are "discriminated against" and she's organizing a coalition to make sure the district's older schools get a larger share of the county schools' budget.

Ms. Thomas met with PTA and administrative representatives from Oakland Mills village's five schools last week to discuss inadequacies and offer advice on seeking county and state money for improvements.

"You look at the older schools, and there's no money for anything. That's the bottom line," said Ms. Thomas. "They deserve fair treatment, and they don't get it.

County school officials say they recognize the problems at Columbia's older schools, but say that the top priority must be providing seats for a growing student population.

"It's not as if staff or the [school] board are in a vacuum as to what the needs are," said school board Chairman Dana Hanna. "But we have to deal with a limited pot of funds. Unfortunately, the bottom line becomes you have to have seats."

Parents of children attending Oakland Mills schools, which were built between 20 and 25 years ago, said they were disappointed that most county and state school construction money goes toward building new schools with modern equipment. Meanwhile, they say, students in older schools are stuck with cramped conditions, inadequate heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, outdated equipment and antiquated classrooms and gyms.

Thunder Hill Elementary School PTA President Hope Patton said the school is like a "sauna" on warm days, and that teachers are hindered by a lack of space. Special education teachers at Stevens Forest Elementary School have difficulty teaching because the open classrooms lack partitions, said PTA vice president-elect Margie Fritz.

"For some things, it doesn't take a whole lot of money to make people happy," said Ms. Patton.

Stevens Forest PTA President-elect Nick Starace said he's eager to support efforts to gain improvements, but was quick to point out the older schools' strengths.

"I grew up in the South Bronx, and these are some of the finest schools I've seen," he said of the East Columbia schools.

Ms. Patton and a county school official had differing perceptions of the problem. Ms. Patton said having 36 students in her daughter's English class at Oakland Mills Middle School is "obscene."

"I spent 15 years in the Baltimore City school system so my definition of obscene is going to be a little different," replied William Brown, director of school construction and planning.

"This is Howard County," Ms. Patton responded.

Mr. Hanna said the school system's weakness has been maintaining a "hospitable environment" in some schools. The school board often must decide whether to pay for "Band-Aid" solutions or wait until a problem can be addressed comprehensively, he said.

"We're doing our damndest to get to the point where there are the least negatives as possible," said Mr. Hanna, adding that the school board intends to closely examine the needs of older schools.

But Talbott Springs Elementary School PTA President Chuck Scudder views the budget process as "breaking down. It's not just what we need, but how are we going to break through and get it," he said.

The Board of Education is developing a master plan for addressing the needs of older schools, said Dr. Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations. Only about $3 million of the county's $37 million school construction budget is spent for mechanical system improvements -- enough for projects for between one and three schools.

Part of the problem, say school officials, is that more than half of the county's schools -- 30 out of 54 -- were built between 1965 and 1975, including most schools in Columbia. Those schools are showing signs of aging at the same time, they say.

"It's really a problem of comparison and equity," said Dr. Cousin. "We don't have buildings that are falling apart. They're more in need of modernization than renovation."

Oakland Mills High School principal Dave Bruzga said there are "great inequities in the school system. I'm not pointing fingers. It's what happens when new schools are built. If older schools are to be brought up to par with newer ones, there's a lot of work to do."

The Board of Education's fiscal 1994 construction budget includes $25 million the county will borrow through bond sales and about $8 million in state money and another $4 million generated by real estate transfer taxes. Nearly 80 percent of the money will be spent for a new western high school, a new northeastern middle school and a new eastern high school.

One older school, Longfellow Elementary, and a comparatively new school, Bollman Bridge Elementary, are slated for additions.

Board of Education officials encouraged PTA representatives to keep pressing for their needs.

"We're not holding something away from you, denying you something you deserve. The [school] board has to make hard choices," said Mr. Brown. "It's going to be a fight. That's the way it is."

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