County Must Take Schools Seriously

COMMENT

April 03, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

While most of us were wondering if Harford County schools would ever close, given the extensive winter cancellations, a number of parents were worrying whether their new schools would open on time this fall.

Still others were wishing their designated new school (Emmorton Elementary near Bel Air) would not open -- at least for their children. And some were praying that at least the roof holes in their school would close soon.

All of which is a reflection of Harford County's burgeoning school-age population and of the dilatory catch-up plan to provide space for them.

School enrollments have been increasing by an average 1,000 students over the past half-dozen years, and the persistent growth curve began more than a decade ago.

The county system has opened five new schools since 1990 and two more are scheduled to open this fall.

The growth in school population has come as no surprise to the county and to the Board of Education, which does six-year and 10-year projections of building needs.

Unfortunately, the school system has not adjusted its construction plans to keep pace with the obviously rising demand. The patchwork effect is evident in ever-shifting enrollment districts that will cause some youngsters to attend at least three different schools in their elementary school years, without ever changing their residence. That's one of the major complaints from parents whose children are marked for transfer to the new Emmorton Elementary.

Ah, but at least children in new school buildings benefit from modern conveniences and computers and improved design, right?

Tell that to the 900 kids who jam into 4-year-old Ring Factory Elementary School this year. A couple of hundred of these pupils are using the nine portable trailers that pass for classrooms there. (The school originally opened without library books, playground equipment or classroom computers.)

And in the main building, the roof has sprung leaks at one point or other since opening, ruining equipment and teaching materials.

Well, if that's the case, then the contractor that built Ring Factory surely won't be doing any more work for the Harford County school board, will it? Wrong. That same contractor is building not one but two new elementary schools (Emmorton and Church Creek) that are supposed to open in September.

This contractor wasn't the original choice to build Church Creek. Another builder picked by the school board proved incapable of completing more than a third of the required work by the contract deadline and gave up the job. (The school system's selection of that site caused further delay: The land covered a former hazardous materials disposal pit.)

Finally, last December, the Harford school board adopted tougher requirements for evaluating contractor bids and competence in a belated effort to remedy these problems. They've not been used yet.

The board was also prodded by the deadline failure of yet another contractor at Fallston Middle School, which opened two weeks late last September in a desperately incomplete condition. (That contract did not go to the low bidder but to the second lowest bidder. The lowest bidder, the one now building Church Creek and Emmorton schools, was disqualified for lying about its minority-owned subcontractor contracts.)

Just a few weeks ago, we heard that Emmorton Elementary will officially open Sept. 7, the first day of school. The only things missing will be the cafeteria, kitchen, gym, library, etc. (Prediction: Emmorton won't open at all in 1994-95.)

Instead of saying that Emmorton-area parents and students deserve better than this, after all the gaffes in recent years, school system public relations chief Donald Morrison allows that this is business as usual. Riverside Elementary opened 25 years ago without doors or a finished cafeteria, he recalled, so "this is not a new problem."

No kidding? Isn't that an admission that something needed to be done a long time ago to correct this laissez-faire attitude toward school construction? Isn't it an indictment of the administration and the school board for too long ignoring obvious inadequacies in the bidding, construction and compliance process? The 44 portable trailers used as classrooms this year are further evidence of this official lassitude.

Parents should at least be grateful that these school people aren't in the classroom: What would our kids ever learn about the work ethic, homework deadlines and punctuality?

Superintendent of Schools Ray R. Keech blames the media for his administration's ongoing construction problems.

"Those who fan the flames of discontent by playing on the emotions of parents and others are not doing a service to anyone," he said last October. "Without exception, all the work has been first-rate, completed within budget." That was the same time the school board was threatening legal action against contractors on two school projects.

This bitter cold winter has not been the main cause of the delays, only a handy one-time excuse for those feeling the heat for repeated delays and construction defects.

With two new elementary schools slated to open in 1997 and one more in 1998, it's time to can the Keystone Kops' approach on Gordon Street.

Parents and taxpayers -- and most importantly, the children -- have a right to schools that open on time, properly built and equipped.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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