They'll raise the roof -- or just let it fall apart


November 03, 1996|By Mike Burns

INTO EVERY LIFE a little rain must fall, but the odds of being caught in the downpour could be a lot shorter if you're a student in Carroll County schools.

That's if the newly reconstituted county Planning and Zoning Commission gets its way on recommendations for capital projects in the school system budget.

Bean counters on the seven-member commission last monthaxed a Board of Education request to keep a "rainy day fund," as it were, for maintaining and repairing roofs at county schools on an as-needed basis.

Commission member Joe Mettle called the maintenance item a "huge slush fund." Wait until it rains to ask for repair funds, he implied, underlining the level of "planning" that apparently exists on the current P&Z body.

Aside from the obvious economy of having a contingency plan to maintain the 35 school buildings in Carroll County, there's another important reason for routine roof repairs. In order to keep in force the standard 20-year warranties of roof installers, school facilities chief Lester Surber explained, the system has to do routine maintenance and repairs.

The conflict was not about the actual amount of money for the fund, but about a simmering controversy over Carroll school spending and accountability.

Mr. Mettle knows that $100,000 isn't much slush, no matter how you make snow-cones. Especially in a projected capital projects schedule of more than $100 million for Carroll schools over five years.

But the public is highly sensitive to these soaring costs of construction and operations in the county schools. It's the major articulated issue in the heated race for the Board of Education.

Carroll countians remember they were hit with a 16 percent increase in the local piggyback income tax rate last year, specifically for new school buildings.

The property tax rate was jacked up by 27 cents per $100 of assessed valuation this spring; school needs were again among the priorities for that increase.

There's also discontent over school planning decisions. Plans for Elmer Wolfe Elementary were cut back after bids came in 11 percent above estimate this year. The planned Linton Springs Elementary School site is wrapped in controversy over access roads and entrances.

The Westminster site of a new high school and/or elementary school has been a lightning rod for criticism of school planning.

The 100-acre site is cut by the Center Street extension, and a large section of hard rock underlies one proposed location of the elementary school. School authorities say they wanted that land for a single school, but the purchase was made in 1994 after the system agreed to two schools on the plot. Difficulties with those plans have increased the projected costs; the latest idea is to fit two schools on one side of the road and a tunnel connecting to a high school sports stadium on the other side.

It's not as if the school board is building expansive palaces for the student population, which increased by 800 pupils this year. More than 110 portable classrooms are in use, demonstrating how crowded school buildings are.

The planning and zoning commission is supposed to review the capital budget requests of county agencies. Construction, renovation and major purchases are included. The body recommends cuts to the commissioners, who make the final decisions in the spring budget rounds.

The commission can usually find something to be trimmed without apparent pain. This fall, for instance, they red-penciled high school tennis courts for Westminster High, rubber surfacing for running tracks, and aluminum footboards for bleachers.

Playing to the crowd

But the exercise in economy turned into a cost-slashing frenzy this year, perhaps playing to the political crowd.

To make its blunt point, the commission eliminated funds for new equipment and furniture for school administration offices that will move to the Winchester Building next year.

Computers and air conditioning were two other targets of the cost cutters. The board scored school officials for failing to appoint a coordinator to ensure computer purchases were compatible with the county government's choices.

Compatible equipment would enhance communications and service among the county users, commissioners argued. The school system says it can get better prices through the state schools procurement program, and that there is no practical advantage in buying the same computer for every agency.

The planning wizards also found great political advantage in cutting air conditioning projects for four schools, without even looking at their design and ventilation systems. They congratulated themselves on hitting an easy target: Schools don't need such frills, since we never had them when we were kids, they huffed.

Of the planning body's other designated cuts -- facilities for special-education retarded children and for disabled pupils and teachers -- there is little need for comment.

Their actions speak to the very character of their public service.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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