'Botched' school repair admitted $1.5 million effort at Deer Park fails to fix ventilation

April 09, 1996|By Marego Athans and Lisa Respers | Marego Athans and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Deer Park Elementary School is not a new problem.

When more than 200 children stayed home from the Randallstown school last month, complaining of headaches, nausea and respiratory problems, Baltimore County school officials insisted that the chemical leak in the building's ventilation system posed no health hazard.

Now, as Deer Park remains closed for the fifth straight school day -- and children have no idea when they'll be back in class -- a report obtained by The Sun and interviews with school system officials and health and engineering experts show that the building's ventilation system has repeatedly malfunctioned for a year and a half, beginning just after the school reopened from a $1.5 million renovation.

Almost from the time of the school's reopening in the fall of 1994, teachers and parents have complained of discomfort and pressed the school system to fix the problems.

"The situation was botched," said board member Dunbar Brooks, angry that officials did not tell the school board of the problem until parents stormed into its last meeting March 26. "You trust and expect them to make wise decisions. On this one we're a bit perturbed that we sat there not really understanding what was going on."

In a meeting at the school last night, Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione apologized to parents for delays in response.

"In a building where we have spent $1.5 million since 1993, we should not be having these problems," he said. The school system is establishing procedures to prevent a repeat of Deer Park's woes and conducting an internal audit to identify what went wrong, he said.

A report obtained yesterday by The Sun shows that in October 1994, a school district field representative tested the newly renovated building and found new classroom

heating and cooling systems not working, dirty filters, several types of fungus and higher than normal levels of carbon dioxide, among other problems.

Asked about the report yesterday, the tester -- Reginald B. Ringgold -- said he expected to find contaminants in the air because the new equipment wasn't working. "A brand new system should have been fairly clean," he said. "It shows you have a problem with your ventilation system."

Faith C. Hermann, executive director of school system facilities and the official in charge of such projects, did not return phone calls yesterday and did not attend last night's meeting at Deer Park.

Evidence of antifreeze found

County officials are expected to hire a firm to investigate what, if anything, is wrong with the equipment. Air and water quality tests conducted last week revealed problems with the heating and ventilation systems, trouble with temperature and humidity controls, evidence of water leakage in many of the heat pumps, and evidence of ethylene glycol -- an antifreeze used in a backup heating system -- in heat-pump water and damaged tiles and carpeting.

Results from additional tests, expected late this week, will show whether bacteria and other contaminants are in the building.

Dr. Marchione said last night that he would know by week's end whether the building is safe for children to return. If not, children will be split among Hernwood Elementary and Deer Park Magnet Middle schools -- an idea that did not sit well with parents. To make up lost days, students will attend school during four remaining days originally scheduled for teacher training, Principal Beth M. Strauss told parents.

Health concerns raised

Parents also demanded to know what long-term health effects their children may face, but got few answers.

Health officials say that so far at least, the problems found in the building are not life-threatening, and many people would have no effects from breathing the air. But those with asthma or allergies could be affected.

"We have stated clearly that there are some in the school who are becoming ill because of the conditions," said Dr. Michelle D. Leverett, county health officer. "It would not be life-threatening, but they'd be fairly miserable."

Deer Park has had a troubled decade, with parents and teachers blaming illnesses on the building, and dubious school officials turning up no problems. Then, in 1993 -- about six years after the first complaints -- a test revealed about 22 types of fungus and several types of bacteria. The school system closed it in the summer of 1993 for a renovation and split up the children among nearby schools during the school year.

L More than a year and $1.5 million later, Deer Park reopened.

"Almost immediately after the renovation there were complaints about ventilation and leaks, as far as I can tell from teachers," said Dr. Shirin deSilva, an occupational physician and environmental specialist who headed the team of researchers testing the school.

Problems were persistent

H. C. Skip Harclerode, an engineer hired by the county schools to design the new system, said school officials called him in repeatedly during the 1994-1995 school year to fix problems with the controls.

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