Ailing buildings threaten education Balto. Co.'s Fullerton shows need for repairs can hinder learning

February 16, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Not too long ago, school buildings were just buildings, and so at budget time their needs got swept away in the crush of computer networks, magnet schools and the latest educational fads.

Today, years of neglect are exploding in the faces of school officials in Baltimore County and nationwide -- not only in the form of leaking heaters and sick children. In more subtle ways, ailing buildings are threatening to destroy hard-won academic success.

None is a more glaring example than Fullerton Elementary -- the only county school and one of four in Maryland whose third-graders met standards in every subject on the state's critical thinking test last year, a feat made more notable by the school's largely blue-collar demographics.

Fullerton was wracked this year by mold and air-quality problems, which closed the building for seven days. Since August, the eastern Baltimore County school has struggled with chronically ill children and teachers, an aging ventilation system, blue-black dust appearing regularly on desks, months of environmental testing, $200,000 spent so far in repairs and another $500,000 to $600,000 promised.

Now, nine teachers have requested transfers -- about double the usual number -- and at least five of them largely for health reasons. Though many parents and teachers say the school system is doing its best to fix a confounding problem, the transfer requests are a troubling development for a school where a dedicated staff and teamwork put the community on the map of high achievement.

"It's been a long, hard, frustrating year for all of us," said Principal John Hutchinson. "It's been the most frustrating year of my 35 years in education."

For Baltimore County, Fullerton poses a quandary: The school system can't spend $800,000 on every ailing school or it will go broke fast.

Eighty-two percent of the 160 buildings are more than 25 years old; only 3 percent were built or renovated since 1980. Many report a litany of problems, from leaking roofs to broken boilers to mold that produces a pervasive musty odor.

In the past 11 months, three schools -- including Fullerton -- have shut down in highly publicized incidents because of environmental problems. More than 1,600 children have missed days or weeks of classes because of illnesses or school closings.

Deer Park Elementary closed in March because the ventilation system was leaking chemicals; children missed at least eight days of classes before being sent to nearby schools. Bear Creek Elementary in Dundalk closed Jan. 17 for a month, after tests detected elevated levels of airborne asbestos; students missed six days, then were sent to nearby schools.

County government leaders have pledged $1 million in emergency funds to hire consultants to evaluate all school buildings. But most of the repair money won't be available for several years because the district is focusing most of its immediate capital spending on new schools and additions to relieve crowding.

Next year's proposed operating budget has only a $500,000 increase over the current $7.2 million maintenance budget on the top-priority list; another $2.36 million in identified needs are on the low-priority list and have little chance of being funded.

"We may be spending money -- not unnecessarily -- but because we have a credibility problem," said board member Dunbar Brooks, chairman of the board's building committee.

"What we're doing now is erring on the side of caution. There's nothing wrong with that -- these are our children. But that's very expensive. At some point you have to think about what's prudent. It's a balancing act that's real tough."

To trigger change at a school troubled by sinus infections, upper respiratory illness, headaches and rashes, Fullerton had plenty of ammunition, including a strong PTA that brought in experts from the Johns Hopkins University schools of public health and medicine to evaluate the building and health effects. Teachers tapped relatives and friends in chemical, architectural and public health fields to research the problems, and eventually abandoned their fears of retribution to publicly challenge district leaders.

Fullerton also had a determined principal whose school had earned statewide recognition for test results in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. It had Joseph Bartenfelder -- County Council chairman and a Fullerton parent -- who vowed at a recent meeting that money wouldn't stand in the way of repairs.

Last week, school system officials agreed to spend $500,000 to $600,000 replacing fiberglass-lined ductwork in the ventilation system, a commitment they had argued against because health evaluations are not complete and they have no concrete evidence that fiberglass particles are causing sickness. One consultant recommended encapsulation, while another -- a Hopkins expert -- suggested replacement, saying the insulation might be a reservoir for mold spores and other particles.

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