School opening is put on hold one more time

January 26, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Yet another weather-related wallop for Runnymede Elementary School will keep it from opening Feb. 2.

This time, the problem is a wastewater treatment plant that froze solid last week, causing a tank to heave and shear at least one critical pipe. Officials don't know what other damage might lie below the frozen ground.

Teachers and parents shed tears of frustration and anger before school officials at a hastily called meeting yesterday at the "Runnymede Annex," actually Taneytown Elementary School, where students and staff have been in crowded temporary quarters since September.

"We have high standards and we put everything we can into our teaching, and we can't do the job we want to do," said a tearful Karen Neth, special education resource teacher.

Two weeks ago, the Carroll County Education Association told the school board that Runnymede teachers at Taneytown Elementary lack the space and materials for proper teaching. Space problems forced special education testing to be conducted in hallways, with no privacy, said Cynthia Cummings, association president.

"This reflects that the Board of Education didn't plan properly for the children," said Rachelle Hurwitz of Uniontown, who last spring was among parents who urged the school board to keep Uniontown Elementary School open another year rather than move children to temporary quarters.

That was when the delay was expected to be four months. Runnymede students are now in their fifth month, with probably at least another to go, at Taneytown.

"That these children had to be removed from a perfectly good school" to crowded rooms at Taneytown shows that the board didn't keep children in mind when planning, Ms. Hurwitz said.

"These children really lost a solid education for one year," she said.

Yesterday, officials were afraid even to hazard a guess for a new opening date, until they see all the damage.

The initial guess by staff in a memo distributed to parents and teachers was three to four weeks, but Vernon Smith, director of school support services, wouldn't give a date.

"It's difficult for us to say whether it will be about three weeks, a month, or longer," he said.

Some teachers said they didn't believe enough was being done, others said they did, but wished school officials were more sensitive when they announced last month's delay instead of making teachers feel bad for their frustration.

"There was a defensiveness on our part" last month, Mr. Smith said. He said officials are more sensitive now to the frustration of the staff and parents.

Nature's interference

That Runnymede should open during this school year is as much as Lester Surber, supervisor of school facilities, would say.

Nature has made school officials eat their words before.

The school originally was supposed to open in September, then January, then February. It was plagued by weather delays that stopped work for 100 days over the past two years, Dr. Surber said.

The same bad weather is delaying New Windsor Middle School construction. Instead of opening in January 1995, the school won't be ready before September 1995, Dr. Surber said.

For Runnymede, problems started with heavy rains in spring 1992 that delayed installation of the building's footings.

In 1992 and 1993, while construction progressed, workers tried five times to find a well, coming up dry each time until they tried the other side of the building, Dr. Surber said.

In spring 1993, excavators removing earth for the wastewater treatment plant discovered an underground spring on the west side of the building, about 100 yards from where they were looking in vain for water the year before.

Construction stopped for a month while the contractor and Dr. Surber tried to determine how to reconcile the wastewater plant with the stream. The contractor finally installed 6 feet of compacted stone to provide a buffer. The stone layer is above the stream and under the treatment plant.

In March 1993, construction was held up by the blizzard. Over the spring, summer and fall, more rain than normal also held up work.

School might have opened the first week of January, but for heavy rains just after Thanksgiving, which interfered with the wastewater treatment plant built especially for the school.

The arctic weather last week froze the outdoor tank of the system. It froze the ground around the tank, causing the tank to heave, breaking off aerating pipe. Workers don't know whether any underground pipes that will carry wastewater to the treatment tanks were broken.

Mr. Smith said one lesson is not to locate schools where an independent treatment plant must be built. The land for Runnymede was the only land available for a school, he said, and it didn't percolate enough to build a septic system. It is not within city limits of either Westminster or Taneytown, so it can't get municipal water.

'Most complex'

Dr. Surber can remember no other project hampered by as many weather delays, or delays of any kind, in his 17-year tenure when he has seen more than 15 major school construction projects costing more than $80 million.

"This has been the most complex, because of weather conditions in particular," he said.

"People can get into all sorts of finger-pointing, but the big thing has been the weather. We simply have to take as positive an outlook as we possibly can, while being realistic.

"Nothing could have been predicted," Dr. Surber said -- even the underground spring and the trouble finding a well. "We had hydro-geologists. We had a guy out here with a willow twig."

A former school board member who heard about the trouble finding water had a friend come from Pennsylvania with a divining rod to help the contractor find a well.

Dr. Surber said the dowser was right over the stream, but the divining rod did not show that. "There was no charge," he said.

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