Closer tabs on school construction

May 11, 1994

Maryland's school systems got a whopping $106 million in state construction money this election year, the largest sum in two decades, as the counties struggle to keep up with a burgeoning school-age population and to replace seriously outdated facilities. That state outlay contrasts sharply with an annual average of $70 million since 1986.

The challenge will be to spend that precious windfall wisely -- it's still only half of what systems say they need -- and to make sure that these badly needed new schools are completed competently and on time. There's scarcely a school district that isn't using portable trailers as classrooms or cramming kids into over-capacity facilities.

Some counties have done better than others in winning funds from the state legislature and bureaucracy. But the one thing that school systems can control themselves is the quality of their plans, the careful selection of qualified builders and competent oversight of the construction process.

Unfortunately, deadline failures of school contractors have occurred so often that veteran administrators no longer view them as abnormal. But parents and their school children are rightly upset. When the academic year starts, children should be in their assigned schools or there is a disruption to education that can never be made up.

Carroll County's Runnymede Elementary was six months late in opening this school year, delayed by what officials excused as severe weather conditions. But that was cold comfort to 500 children who spent most of the year as temporary tenants in another, overcrowded schoolhouse. Pupils at Anne Arundel's North County High School lost two weeks of classes due to construction delays.

And Harford County's construction experience has been even more dismal. Church Creek Elementary, planned to open last lTC September, was delayed a full year after the contractor was removed from the job for financial problems. Last month, the replacement contractor on that project ran short of money, and the bonding company had to take over financial management. Another school being built by the same contractor may not be completed in time for the Sept. 7 opening either.

Last year, another Harford school, Fallston Middle, opened two weeks late because of contractor delays. And, Ring Factory Elementary in the county's "growth envelope" has had a repeatedly leaking roof since opening in a rush four years ago.

This bulge in building needs requires school systems to tighten bid-evaluation processes and oversight procedures, and to use professional construction managers to assure that projects are completed in working order and on time. Failure to ride close herd at every stage on these construction projects is a misuse of state funds -- shortchanging taxpayers and, most importantly, children.

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