Analysis of school repairs is OK'd $1 million to be spent to determine needs of 160 county facilities

March 04, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In a bid to head off the kind of problems that have triggered shutdowns of several aging schools, the Baltimore County Council last night unanimously approved spending $1 million for a consultant to study maintenance and repair needs at all 160 school buildings.

The council approved the money after education officials gave members detailed information on the plan to improve the school buildings.

"I'm not opposed to this idea at all," said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, despite his and other council members' requests at last week's council work session for more information and assurances about how the money is to be spent.

"We are the fiscal watchdogs," Moxley said. "If we allocated this money [without details of the plan] then it is controlled by the Board of Education" and can be used for the board's purposes.

Gene L. Neff, school facilities chief, said he would work quickly to hire the consultant for the exhaustive study, which is expected to take a year to complete.

With only 3 percent of county school buildings new or renovated since 1980, the county is slowly gearing up for a major repair effort. The first step is to add new seats quickly, especially in high schools, where an enrollment boom is projected after 2000. After the study is completed, more school construction money will be shifted into repairs and renovations.

Recent problems

Deer Park Elementary in Randallstown was closed for months last spring because of leaking air-conditioning units and poor air circulation that caused respiratory problems among students and teachers. This year, Fullerton and Bear Creek elementaries closed for brief periods because of air quality problems.

About 1,600 children missed days or weeks of classes because of problems at those schools. Repairs at the three schools have cost more than $1.5 million and bills are still arriving.

Support for the new study grew stronger after school officials supplied each council member with written details of the purpose, methods and criteria for the study after last week's work session. Along with that came specific checklists for each building and the priority each school will be assigned for repairs.

That information was demanded by several council members, who, with PTA Council President Linda Olszewski, expressed little trust in the school system's ability to spend the money wisely.

Doubts raised last week

Questions at last week's work session came from Moxley, and Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat.

"We're carte blanche handing over the money without any oversight," Kamenetz complained, demanding more detail of the study.

Moxley also demanded more information last week and Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican, indicated he might not vote for the study.

At the work session, Neff said he had nothing on paper but he compiled the information quickly to satisfy the council's doubts.

By yesterday, both Moxley and Kamenetz supported the consultant idea.

"This is what I wanted," Moxley said.

Kamenetz also welcomed the information, saying, "I've never been opposed to the concept. I just wanted more detail."

Harder to satisfy will be the parents who have seen leaky roofs, windows and other faults ignored for years.

"The $1 million has not been a comfort to parents," Olszewski told the council. "The track record is not good."

Parents' concerns

Olszewski said parents feel that school custodians already know what the problems are, and this would be merely one more study followed by inaction. She also complained that a year to complete the study is too long.

Neff said he understands that trust is in short supply with parents. "That's something that it really takes time to earn."

Custodians know some of the problems, he said, and an earlier in-house accounting took stock of the age of boilers and science lab renovations. A separate survey of roofs has already ranked them for replacement.

But he said the new study would be more comprehensive, evaluating and rating mechanical systems, architectural features, compliance with building code requirements and handicapped accessibility of every building. If problems with ventilation systems are discovered, environmental experts can be called in before conditions worsen.

"This is something we've got to do to find out about the situation here," Neff says.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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