To pay now or later Like many older systems, city schools have put off upkeep. Now they are learning what it costs

September 29, 1996|By JEAN THOMPSON Sun staff writers Kate Shatzkin, Marcia Myers, Marego Athans, Andrea Siegel and Jean Thompson reported this article.

Twice this calendar year, Baltimore has been haunted by the specter of inadequate investment in school building maintenance.

In June, steam and hot water scalded and scarred a 7-year-old child in a water heater accident at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School.

Prodded by The Sun's articles about the accident, the city and state now will join forces to check all Baltimore school boilers. Already, during spot checks, the state's boiler inspectors have found code violations and shoddy work.

Just days before classes began this month, 550 children and their teachers were locked out of Waverly Elementary School because a vigorous mold, thriving on old insulation in moist air conditioning ducts, crept down the walls, over bookshelves and across carpets.

The students missed three days of school. Since Sept. 9, they have been bused daily to makeshift classrooms in a school across town. The target date for returning to their own building is Oct. 7.

Preventive maintenance could have averted both disasters, state and local officials say.

But preventive maintenance, in the aged schoolhouses of Baltimore and school systems across the country, costs more than many communities, cities and states can or will spend, national studies suggest.

Baltimore's two incidents are symptoms of a larger problem - described this year in federal General Accounting Office studies of the condition of the nation's schools.

The GAO concluded that millions of children attend classes in inadequate and sometimes unsafe buildings because of a lack of investment in maintenance, renovation and replacement. Nationwide, an estimated $112 billion needs to be spent to repair or upgrade schools during the next three years.

For city teachers who lecture under leaky roofs and for students whose asthma is irritated by inadequate ventilation, it will come as no surprise that the GAO found decaying schools most often in communities that fit Baltimore's demographic profile.

"As widespread as these problems are, schools in unsatisfactory physical and environmental conditions are concentrated in central cities and serve large populations of poor or minority students," concluded the GAO report.

Inadequate buildings were found most often in the school systems where 70 percent or more of the students are poor; school systems in which 50.5 percent or more of the students are minorities; central cities; and large school systems, said the state-by-state report in the GAO series.

In recent years, only about 8 percent of large-city school budgets has been spent on maintenance and operations, including the continuing costs of janitorial services, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which is comprised of chiefs of the nation's largest school systems.

In urban areas, the lion's share is spent on emergency repairs to keep old facilities patched together, he said. Only about 3.5 percent of school maintenance budgets go to basic preventive care, according to a federal Department of Education study.

How small a drop in the bucket is this, compared to the need? Asked this past February how much it would take to make all the repairs necessary to bring all schools into good overall condition, New Orleans said $500 million; Richmond, Va., said $100 million; New York City said $7.8 billion; Washington said $460 million.

Baltimore did not participate in the study, but last week, Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey estimated that "more than $350 million" would be needed here. The cost of renovating or replacing all of the schools' worn and outdated boilers would be about $27 million, his maintenance managers estimate.

"The job is really so massive that it is beyond any one level of government or public sector or private sector to do for itself," said Eleanor L. Johnson, the GAO's assistant director for education and employment issues and spokeswoman for its series of studies. "In a broader sense, we have ignored infrastructure needs for a long time, such as bridges and highways. This is one more infrastructure need, and at some point you have to say this is more pressing than the others."

Administrators in Baltimore and elsewhere say that through the 1980s and 1990s, maintenance and operations have been sacrificed as dollars for salaries and classroom needs took precedence. They can only attack the problem in small chunks, as affordable, so the issue becomes management: setting priorities and predicting needs.

City schools seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of the needs compared to their limited resources - Baltimore's maintenance department has about $42 million, and principals another $20 million, to spend on repairs and engineers and custodians this year.

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