Ashburton school falls victim to Schaefer's ire

May 08, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Judging by most criteria, Ashburton Elementary School has no connection to Maryland's wetlands.

The aging building lies in a middle-class community in Northwest Baltimore where asphalt and concrete long ago replaced most natural terrain. Amid the red-brick rowhouses and single-family homes, one is unlikely to see a duck, much less a heron. So it was only natural for students to wonder last week why a plan to build a new school for them has become an apparent political casualty in a dispute over regulating nontidal wetlands.

"This is a cruel way of getting back at someone," said fifth-grader Michael Banks. "We had nothing to do with it."

Keosha Thomas, 10, didn't like taking the brunt of a political payback either. "I think that was very mean," the fourth-grader said.

The focus of Michael's and Keosha's frustration is the governor of Maryland.

In an unusually brazen example of Realpolitik last month, Gov. William Donald Schaefer rejected a city request for $4.5 million to replace the decrepit, 45-year-old elementary school. By all accounts, the decision was aimed at a Baltimore state senator who helped sink the governor's bill on nontidal wetlands and two other bills during the recent legislative session.

Late last week, the governor reaffirmed his position on the school and shrugged off the children's complaints.

"Every subdivision in the state says the governor is mean and cruel when he doesn't fund their schools," Mr. Schaefer said.

Despite the governor's opposition, the matter appears to be far from over. Last week, students picked up some key political support from state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein after he spent an hour at the Truman-era school with its leak-stained ceilings and cramped classrooms.

"This school should have been rebuilt a long time ago," said Mr. Goldstein. "You've got my vote."

Along with the governor, Mr. Goldstein and state Treasurer Lucille Maurer make up the Maryland Board of Public Works, which distributes tens of millions of dollars annually for school construction across the state. The board has awarded about $94 million this year and has $12 million more to hand out.

Mr. Goldstein and Mrs. Maurer, who also wants to replace the school, are at a stalemate with the governor. Mrs. Maurer says she will try to persuade Mr. Schaefer to schedule a vote on money for Ashburton and several other school projects soon.

The governor says he's not budging and that his colleagues are putting him on the spot by publicly supporting the Ashburton project.

"I sort of resent them interfering," Mr. Schaefer said.

Although the governor largely controls the board agenda, the other two members can overrule him and bring other issues to a vote. The board members tend to have a collegial relationship, however, and they like to avoid such public splits.

Mrs. Maurer said she remained optimistic about funding for Ashburton but added that she did not know when or how the issue would be resolved.

In the meantime, several students sitting in a portable classroom last week ticked off problems with the three-story former synagogue: peeling paint, holes in bathroom walls, leaky pipes and a cramped library.

The problems are obvious to most visitors. Outside a second-floor bathroom, paint has peeled enough to reveal four coats -- blue, aqua, beige and white. On the first floor, a piece of plywood covers a 2-by-3-foot hole in the ceiling of another bathroom.

Overhead pipes have leaked periodically, spreading water across the floor, said Principal Frances Ellington. In January, the school had to close a bathroom for two days for repairs.

"I can't believe they pass inspections," said fifth-grader Aaron Williams.

Many of the plastic windows have turned cloudy with age. One set had gotten so bad that until it was replaced this year, staff members in the front office said, they could not see students in the playground below.

Baltimore school officials say the school is terribly outdated. For instance, it has neither a science laboratory nor art and music classrooms.

A large room with a linoleum floor serves as a makeshift gymnasium. The 300 students spill out into three portable classrooms.

The city plans to build a school more than twice the size of the current one with computer terminals in every classroom and a 5,000-square-foot gymnasium with basketball hoops. Although Baltimore's student enrollment is declining, education officials say they need to build a new school for the Ashburton area because the current structure is beyond renovation.

Pete Dixit, chief of maintenance and operations for the city school system, cites an obsolete heating system and hallways that are too narrow to meet current building codes.

"Anybody who visits the school building can see it's in desperate need of modernization," said school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

If the city fails to get state funding for the school this year, Dr. Amprey said, officials will try again in 1995.

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