Bond money opens debate for schools Balto. Co. win poses allocation questions on building projects

Greater efficiency pledged

Officials promise cooperation after approval of $89 million

November 10, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Though Baltimore County officials on Tuesday won overwhelming voter approval for $89.6 million in school construction bonds, they must prove they can spend the money wisely.

"We want to make sure it does get spent and is spent where they said it will be," said Linda Olszewski, president of the county's PTA Council. "I don't want just plans. I want things to move to fruition."

In a county beset by recent problems of poor school maintenance, construction delays and a $31 million construction fund shortfall because of low estimates, that's no small order.

Making matters more complicated, 82 percent of county schools are more than 25 years old and only 3 percent of the 160 buildings have been built or renovated since 1980.

"Deer Park was a wake-up call," said school board building committee chairman Dunbar Brooks, speaking of the closure of the Randallstown school in March because of leaky ventilation equipment. "We've got a lot of neglected schools out there."

Although enrollment is up by about 24,000 students to 104,500 since 1984, the county faces the Feb. 1 expiration of a 6-year "temporary" moratorium on construction around crowded elementary schools.

With debate expected to intensify on the need for a more comprehensive law to regulate development around crowded schools, the county will be under increased pressure to efficiently use bond funds earmarked for 3,000 new high school seats, new roofs and school additions.

Officials plan to show their good intentions next week on several school projects that were in the pipeline before the bond issue, said county Budget Director Fred Homan.

The county executive's office plans to ask the County Council for approval for $14 million in budget transfers and surplus school construction spending on a variety of projects, including the Dulaney High School addition and the new Southwest Elementary.

A vote on the new money will come next month.

When it comes to spending money, county officials vow things will be different. They pledge no more long delays for design changes, no bickering between county and school officials, and no neglected maintenance and incompetence of the kind that forced costly work and the closing of Deer Park.

"We have a joint partnership and cooperation that's never been there before," said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "Our budget director, Fred Homan, is working with [school officials] on a weekly basis."

Gene L. Neff, schools facilities chief, said that cooperation already has produced more accurate project cost estimates and helped his staff plan projects to begin once the bond money becomes legally available July 1.

Ruppersberger praised Neff's work, noting that he is a former county public works director. The county executive said he has confidence in Neff.

But skeptics include Marita Cush, president of the Catonsville Community Conservation Association.

Members of her group remember how voters approved an earlier school bond issue that was to have included money to renovate and reopen the old Catonsville Middle School on Bloomsbury Avenue.

Those plans, approved in 1994 by then-County Executive Roger B. Hayden and by the County Council, were changed. Instead of fixing up Catonsville Middle, the county is building Southwest Elementary to accommodate projected enrollment.

"What we have in county government now is no better than giving the county executive a blank check," Cush said of the bond issue approval.

However, County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said the bond issue is "like a line of credit. It does not necessarily mean those funds must be borrowed" or that projects can't be changed.

During the 1992 recession, for example, Hayden stopped selling county bonds to keep interest expenses down and to protect the county's bond rating.

School officials say the system for getting things done is improving. They note that:

* The county has scrapped the system of making design changes to new school plans until the contract is bid. Now, all parties have their say once, and the final design goes forward, said Neff.

* Cooperation between school officials and county public works, environment and budget officials is preventing problems or solving them when they occur, not months or years later.

* Newer, more modern pre-manufactured classrooms -- such as those at Towson High during renovations -- are replacing the old trailers. The classrooms can be quickly assembled into seven-classroom units, and later moved to another school.

* A prototype design for elementary schools, based on the New Essex Elementary, is shortening the time needed to build Southwest, Martin Boulevard and Edgemere elementaries.

* A school board task force is making plans to strengthen Neff's operations, especially maintenance, to prevent or quickly solve problems and establish a better maintenance system.

Neff said a quick response will be vital as new schools and additions spring up.

"We are totally outmanned," he said, noting that past County Councils have cut maintenance positions to save money -- cuts that are haunting the county in the form of buildings with worn-out furnaces, ventilation systems and windows, he said.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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