Boiler system review is urged Bell wants inspection of schools separate from city-paid firm

September 17, 1996|By Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson | Marcia Myers and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III yesterday called for a complete inspection of boiler systems throughout the city schools, after reports of widespread safety violations and fears of another accident like one that severely burned a first-grader in June.

"I'm concerned about potential liability to the city, but more important, the health and welfare of students and faculty and staff," Bell said. "This is something we should be able to control."

Maryland's top official for school renovation and construction yesterday said he intends to monitor whatever inspections are done.

"I guess if that was a school in my system and I had authority over it, I'd have been out in schools inspecting every one right away to make sure they are safe," said Yale Stenzler, the official. "I am concerned."

Despite the frequency of violations recounted this week in The Sun, education officials say the local schools are safe and there is no need for an immediate systemwide evaluation.

On June 18, a hot water supply boiler -- which had no operating certificate and no record of ever having been inspected -- overheated at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School, causing super-heated water to erupt from a toilet after it was flushed by Ashley Moore, 7. The accident left the girl with second- and third-degree burns. It also began a string of inquiries by state investigators.

The state's random survey of 42 other schools found safety violations on every piece of equipment inspected, prompting inspectors to urge a full audit of schools systemwide. Some of the state reports were in stark contrast to the findings of city-paid inspectors with the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co., which insures Baltimore against lawsuits over boiler accidents.

Citing a lack of resources, John P. O'Connor, state commissioner of labor and industry, has handed the job back to Hartford. The Connecticut firm was given a deadline of Oct. 1 and will be spot-checked by the state, O'Connor said.

Councilman Bell yesterday said he wanted a more independent assessment of the schools' heating and hot water systems. "It may be time for us to go and look beyond Hartford," he said. He urged school administrators to "take the lead before the state does" and said he is organizing a meeting with school officials.

"I'm very concerned about the state of our facilities," he said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke echoed Bell's comments about Hartford but did not seek an independent inspection. Instead, he suggested that the state and city should develop a plan for inspecting boilers.

Meanwhile, school officials yesterday said there was no need for broader inspections of the remaining 139 schools.

"I don't see a need for them to go back in and reinspect, other than for those issues they have brought to our attention for which they have asked us to make some repairs," said Anthony Fears, the schools' top maintenance official.

At the same time, he blamed state legislators for the financial woes that he said have made keeping up with school maintenance difficult. The state recently withheld $24 million in school aid to try to force the city to reorganize school system management. Another $5.9 million in construction funds is being withheld.

Fears contends the state has hampered his ability to maintain buildings by withholding school aid. His operating budget pays for 49 engineers to work on 182 schools. Moreover, Fears says he has 58 vacancies.

"I can honestly say we could be providing much better service and have much better equipment if we had the dollars for schools and staff that is being withheld."

State officials responded angrily to the suggestion that the boiler maintenance problems are related to recently withheld funds.

"The funding withheld by the governor in the school construction problem did not prevent the city from doing its repairs," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "It is my sense, given the magnitude of the problem, this was not part of the city's request from the state. It is especially alarming, because it appears to be a problem that has been developing for a long, long time."

A few large-scale school renovations may include boiler replacements, but many of the city's requests for funding were for rewiring and roofing projects, said Stenzler, the state school construction official. He said he plans to closely watch the follow-up efforts of maintenance workers and inspectors as they work their way through each school's boiler system.

Stenzler's department pays for school capital improvements, such as boiler replacements and heating system renovations. School systems pay out of their own budgets for upkeep and small repairs, such as changing valves, he said. He wants to know whether Baltimore is maintaining the equipment adequately, not just because it affects the state's investment, he said, but because "the important thing is to have safe schools."

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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