Warnings ignored on school heating Balto. Co. was told in '93 of doubts about Deer Park's system

April 16, 1996|By Marego Athans and Lisa Respers | Marego Athans and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

An engineer hired by the Baltimore County school district to design a heating and ventilation system at Deer Park Elementary strongly recommended against the system that school officials chose -- a system whose malfunction is suspected of making children and teachers ill.

H. C. "Skip" Harclerode II of KBD Engineering Co. said yesterday that he told school officials more than two years ago that the system did not have the capacity to properly ventilate the rooms.

And in August -- a year after the $1.5 million renovation project -- he gave officials a report listing mechanical problems that still had not been addressed.

"If they had followed my design and recommendations, they wouldn't be having these problems," Mr. Harclerode said of the school, which has been closed for nearly three weeks.

Those early concerns proved prophetic yesterday, as county environmental officials released preliminary results of a study blaming the heat pumps for the school's protracted air quality problems.

Health officials have said that the poor ventilation and antifreeze leaking from the heating system could trigger respiratory problems among students and teachers.

Pools of antifreeze

School district officials maintained for months that the building was safe, despite parental complaints. The school was closed last month, after parents withdrew their children upon discovering pools of ethylene glycol, the antifreeze that leaked from Deer Park's heating system.

But a chronology of the building's problems since it was closed for renovation in the summer of 1993 shows that school officials ignored the warnings of their own staff and a hired engineer, and did not tell parents about conditions potentially harmful to their children.

The air problems became apparent soon after the school reopened in September 1994. School officials ignored key procedures recommended in a 1993 engineer's report to ensure the proper air quality and maintenance, Mr. Harclerode said.

And when the district's own environmental testing officer submitted a report in October 1994 detailing the school's air quality problems, the report apparently was not shared even with Deer Park officials and parents.

The county testing officer -- who asked that his name not be used -- said that the school principal, Beth M. Strauss, asked several times for his report from January to March 1995. But because he had been reassigned, he referred her calls to his boss, James F. Patton, a specialist in indoor air and water quality.

Mr. Patton declined to comment, saying he has been instructed to refer all calls about Deer Park Elementary to Donald I. Mohler, the school district's spokesman. Mr. Mohler has declined to comment on the Deer Park situation until the results of an internal review are released.

Mrs. Strauss said she did not remember anything about a report on the heating system, then referred questions to Mr. Mohler.

County officials released preliminary findings of a study on the school's heating and ventilation system. It found that the heat pump units in the classrooms are undersized and cannot provide the proper amount of fresh air, or circulate heat or cool air consistently, said George Perdikakis, director of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

21 heat pumps need repairs

In addition, engineers hired by the county to conduct the study found that 21 of the 23 heat pumps needed repairs, with troubles ranging from defective valves to blown fuses.

Mr. Perdikakis characterized the problem as both manufacturing- and maintenance-related, and said he would ask for a meeting with the manufacturer, Airedale North America, to discuss the matter.

More conclusive findings are expected to be released today.

The findings released so far continue to put the spotlight on the school district's facilities department. Faith C. Hermann, the department's chief, was relieved of her responsibility over existing buildings last week. She continues to receive her $78,000 annual salary and is still responsible for new construction.

She did not return a phone call yesterday. Her boss, Robert H. Chapman -- acting deputy superintendent, who is now overseeing facilities -- said he was not aware of details about which heating and ventilation systems were being installed during the school's renovation.

Mr. Harclerode, whose company is based in Jacksonville in northern Baltimore County, said he protested the choice of Airedale North America.

But he was told that Ms. Hermann and supervisor Robert Klein liked the Airedale heat pumps and he was advised not to buck the system, he said. A local distributor for Airedale said the school district had purchased about 125 units.

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