First aid for school buildings Baltimore County: Council should approve $1 million to assess maintenance needs.

March 03, 1997

THE BALTIMORE COUNTY Council tonight has an opportunity to make sure the quest for money to fix deteriorating school buildings does not devolve into a contest over which communities can yell the loudest.

The council is scheduled to vote on whether to use $1 million remaining from cuts it made to this year's budget for a comprehensive, expert survey of the condition of all 160 school buildings in the county.

Outside consultants will assess each school's physical problems -- everything from electrical systems to leaky windows. The consultants then will prioritize these needs.

The process will be much like the one the county used to fix aging alleys. Having an expert develop standards, then examine and rank every alley, removed politics from the matter. The county could start fixing the worst alleys instead of wasting time on battles over which neighborhoods should be dealt with first.

With schools comes an added, important advantage: The survey gives local officials tangible evidence of need to show state lawmakers when seeking money for school projects.

Some PTA leaders are opposed to the survey. They argue that no expert is needed to tell parents what they can see for themselves. They'd rather money be used for tests of air and water quality and asbestos, or for one or two repair projects. But the school building crisis is too far-reaching to continue a piecemeal response. And environmental problems are almost always caused by problems with the physical structure. The buildings are the issue.

While parents may know a problem at their school when they see it, they are not in a position to compare it with problems at other schools. School officials are, but inevitably become caught between communities. Moreover, recent events have shaken public trust in the system's facilities department.

The council was supportive when plans for the survey were unveiled in January. Since then, a few have voiced concerns because they don't yet know the criteria for prioritization; they want to be able to explain the rankings to their constituents. It's a reasonable request, one the eventual consultant should be responsible for providing. But it should not derail a sound approach toward a serious problem.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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