Baltimore County's school woes $31 million rescue: Government did right in saving system from construction errors.

August 08, 1996

IT WOULD BE understandable if Baltimore County residents' cynicism toward their school system deepens after revelations that it grossly underestimated project costs and ignored a coming overcrowding problem. However, there is encouraging news here too: An inept facilities staff has been cleaned out. New officials have come clean with mistakes. And the schools and county government are working together to get construction needs on track.

How did they get off track? History is partly to blame. Unlike the exurban counties, which have seen a recent school building boom, Baltimore County hasn't built schools since the 1960s. Construction know-how probably deteriorated because it wasn't dTC used that much. That's a partial explanation -- not an excuse for the errors found by new facilities chief Gene Neff and county budget director Fred Homan in a review of school projects.

Estimates for some 15 projects were $31 million too low because the staff of former facilities director Faith Hermann failed to use such elementary procedures as accounting for inflation. (Ms. Hermann's lack of experience also led to air quality problems at Deer Park Elementary.)

Signs of a surge in high school enrollment were ignored, not only by Ms. Hermann, but by the board, ousted Superintendent Stuart D. Berger, current Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione and the Ruppersberger administration's planning staff. The system's enrollment figures -- historically precise -- show that high schools in the central and northwestern areas will need 4,400 more seats by 2005. Yet the capital program recommended by Dr. Marchione and approved by the board and county planners last spring included nothing for these areas until 2000 -- and then not nearly enough.

Give County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the council credit for not letting the schools hang out to dry. It's too bad other projects had to be sacrificed to free up money for more seats; some older schools badly need renovation. But lack of high school space is so acute that the county must act even though other schools will have to do with less ambitious facelifts. Far better that county leaders discovered this now, and that the school administration isn't so obsessed with protecting turf that both sides can't straighten this out.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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