County schools official's tasks cut Marchione orders change after botched Deer Park renovation

April 12, 1996|By Marego Athans and Lisa Respers | Marego Athans and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Under mounting pressure over a botched renovation that has closed Deer Park Elementary School for two weeks and may have made children and teachers ill, Baltimore County's school superintendent yesterday relieved his top facilities official of key duties.

Amid a protracted air quality crisis that has outraged many parents and county officials, Anthony G. Marchione ordered that Faith C. Hermann, head of facilities since July 1993, will now oversee solely new construction.

The move will enable school district leaders to "focus our full attention on a resolution of the problems that led to the difficulties at Deer Park," said schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler.

The action puts the control of existing buildings in limbo until a reorganization is announced in coming weeks; for now it will fall under the purview of Ms. Hermann's boss, acting Deputy Superintendent Robert Chapman. But he will shift into the curriculum area beginning July 1, and the superintendent has said that more changes in top staff are expected by next month.

Deer Park children, who will have missed at least eight school days by the end of today, will be sent to two nearby schools starting Monday, as county officials investigate problems with the heating and ventilation system.

The school closed March 27 after parents said that antifreeze leaking from the heating system and forming puddles in classrooms was causing nausea, headaches and respiratory problems.

Ms. Hermann and other school officials said repeatedly that the building was safe. But records and interviews later revealed that the heating and ventilation system had been malfunctioning for 18 months, since the school reopened after a $1.5 million renovation -- and teachers and students had been complaining of discomfort ever since.

The Deer Park crisis has put the spotlight on Ms. Hermann, a former teacher and principal who rose from the principalship of Catonsville Middle School to head what is now a nearly $100 million building maintenance and construction program.

Irate parents, worried about potential health effects on their children, have questioned whether someone with primarily an educational background was qualified to oversee the program.

"As far as I'm concerned, she really failed the children," said parent Arlene Wongus, whose daughter is a Deer Park second-grader. "I question her credentials having anything to do with facilities and maintenance."

Ms. Hermann, askied if she felt blamed for the Deer Park crisis, said, "Not at all."

Details about Ms. Hermann's background are difficult to discern. District officials have refused to release her resume, saying that laws protect such documents, even though she is a high-ranking official in a public agency.

Amid the Deer Park crisis, even routine interviewing practices with the media have been disrupted at school district headquarters.

Mr. Chapman issued a memo this week telling administrators to direct media calls to the communications officer, Mr. Mohler. But Mr. Mohler would not comment on the situation at Deer Park, saying that officials will wait for an internal review of the project.

Mr. Mohler insisted the memo was not a gag order, but an offer to help administrators handle questions. He said that employees can speak to reporters if they wish.

But that was not the impression left with some staff members.

"Quite frankly, the way things are going, I don't feel comfortable giving any information out when I get a directive in writing," said Steve Walts, assistant superintendent of human resources.

Records and interviews with employees, show that Ms. Hermann, who earns $78,000 annually, was a middle school teacher in the 1980s, then executive assistant to former Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel and the school board, at the time considered a training position for management. She became principal of Catonsville Middle in 1989, and in July 1993 was named head of facilities.

New construction and maintenance had been handled by two officials; the duties were merged this year in a move that gave Ms. Hermann broader power.

Only a month after his appointment as superintendent, Dr. Marchione has been under pressure not only from parents but also from politicians questioning the school district's handling of costly projects.

Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, chairman of the County Council, said he told Dr. Marchione this week he was unhappy with the handling of Deer Park and advised the superintendent to "exercise some leadership."

"I've told him that I believed he's not been well served by some members of his staff," Mr. Kamenetz said. "I think that [Ms. Hermann's reduction in duties] is a good step towards regaining the confidence of parents."

Many parents said they were angered by a March 18 meeting, when Ms. Hermann admitted that she had known about the leaking antifreeze since December but kept the school open.

Yesterday, school officials packed up and prepared to set up new minischools at Hernwood Elementary and Deer Park Middle and Magnet School, where Deer Park students will attend class until the heating and ventilation system is fixed.

Test results released yesterday showed no contaminants in the school, but testing on the ventilation and heating systems will continue this weekend, said George Perdikakis, head of the county Department and Environmental Protection and Resource

Management.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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