Growing rooms for schools

December 07, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert and Mary Maushard | Patrick Gilbert and Mary Maushard,Staff Writers

Hoping to find a quick solution to the problem of crowding in elementary schools, the Baltimore County Council last night approved a resolution asking school officials to consider using prebuilt, modular classroom additions.

Council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said after the 6-1 vote that he had introduced the nonbinding resolution in part because he thought nothing was being done to address the issue.

He noted that easing overcrowding would also make it possible to lift moratoriums on residential construction now in effect in elementary school districts where buildings are 20 percent over capacity.

Those moratoriums now limit building and economic growth around 24 of the county's 94 elementary schools.

"The county has just experienced the largest school-enrollment increase in 20 years. Too many elementary schools remain overcrowded, and we are unable to build new schools quickly enough to head off this long-term problem," Mr. Ruppersberger said.

He said that the county is not getting enough school construction aid from the state. For the upcoming fiscal year, the only county school project to win state approval so far is $721,000 to repair the roof of Chesapeake High School, although officials say more money for other projects could be forthcoming. Mr. Ruppersberger said the county should still try to obtain more state school construction aid.

The dissenting vote was cast by Councilwoman Berchie L. Manley, R-1st. She described the modular additions as a "quick fix" that won't address other problems caused by overcrowding, such as insufficient laboratory space and cramped cafeterias and libraries.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden and school officials said they support the concept of using additions instead of traditional construction.

Mr. Hayden said that his administration recommended the use of modular additions a year and a half ago. But school officials cautioned that practical problems may limit the scope of modular school construction.

The prebuilt additions are trucked to construction sites in large pieces and are attached to existing schools, where their classrooms are accessible through school hallways. They are more substantial than are the portable classroom trailers used at many schools, which can be reached only by walking outside.

School officials did agree to use a modular addition as a pilot project at Hillcrest Elementary School near Catonsville.

"I received several letters from the PTA there and individual parents saying they thought the modular unit worked out well," Mr. Hayden said. Mr. Hayden said he is waiting to hear the school board's plans for future modular additions. The school board is expected to discuss the issue tonight at its regular meeting.

Mr. Ruppersberger said the main advantage of modular additions is that they can be moved, following students as they advance from an overcrowded elementary school to middle school.

But Keith Kelley, the school system's executive director of capital improvements, said there are serious questions about the portability and durability of the modular additions.

Mr. Kelley said he thinks that it is possible to design and build modular additions that are easier to move, but not immediately. The whole issue needs more research, he said.

"In my mind, the modular additions are not built to last 50 years, as are school buildings," he said.

James Kraft, the department's capital planning manager for schools, was more enthusiastic.

"As far as the concept is concerned, I'm a big proponent of it," Mr. Kraft said, although he acknowledged the construction department's concerns about durability.

Mr. Kraft said that one of the advantages of the modular additions is off-site construction, which causes no interruption at the school.

The Hillcrest addition was made in Green Castle, Pa., and assembled at the school over one summer.

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