Balto. Co. school repairs to be costly Marchione estimates $400 million needed for aging buildings

'Ignored for years'

March 14, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

To make long-overdue repairs, Baltimore County may need to spend as much as $400 million on its aging school buildings in the next few years -- a cost equivalent to 50 new elementary schools -- according to a preliminary estimate from a districtwide study.

The estimate, made recently by Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, is based on a continuing survey of the county's 159 schools. Results suggest a widespread need for such work as boiler replacements, roof repairs, painting and the upgrading of electrical and plumbing systems.

And while Marchione and others say the cost could end up being lower than $400 million, county officials have already begun making plans to pay what all agree will be a huge, overdue repair bill.

The county will continue to seek millions from the state while setting aside all available local funds for repairs, said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

"I don't want to cut taxes," Ruppersberger told a group of parent leaders yesterday. "I want to take that money and put it right back into the school facilities."

Ruppersberger even said that if the County Council cuts his operating budget for next year,he will ask council members to take the budget cuts and put the savings into school repairs.

But county educators and some politicians also wonder where they will find money for the repairs -- and how long they will take.

"Even $200 million is still a very big price," Baltimore County Council member Louis L. DePazzo, a Dundalk Democrat, said at a recent lunchtime meeting with school officials.

"I'm not sure where we would find that money."

The need for repairs at so many schools has not surprised county educators, politicians and parents. Several suggested that the $400 million estimate sounds low.

More than 80 percent of the district's schools were built before 1970, and building maintenance has often been ignored or cut in years of tight education budgets.

Other districts of a similar age are facing high repair bills, too. A 1995 study by the General Accounting Office estimated that it would cost $112 billion nationwide to upgrade and repair the nation's schools.

Still, even with a large infusion of state school construction aid, it's unclear where the district and the county will find the money.

The system has proposed a capital construction budget of about $65 million for the 1998-1999 school year, including a request for $32 million in state aid for both repairs and the construction of new classroom space.

The systemwide survey by the Philadelphia firm Perks-Reutter Associates is looking only at the condition of buildings, not at the need for new space for growing enrollment. The cost of new classrooms -- either through new schools or additions at existing ones -- would be added to the repair costs.

The campaign of repairs is likely to take years -- possibly as long as a decade, Marchione says. Michael H. Davis, Ruppersberger's spokesman, said the administration hopes that most of the repairs could be completed in four to six years.

The survey was called for last year by the County Council after air quality problems forced two elementary schools to close in 1996.

The council set aside $1 million for the survey, and the school district hired Perks-Reutter, which recently evaluated the condition of Philadelphia's schools.

So far, the assessment has found few problems that pose an immediate risk to children and need to be fixed quickly, said John Kennedy, project manager for the engineering firm.

But the survey -- examining everything from leaky windows to cracked paint to faulty heating -- is revealing the need for repairs typical of aging school buildings, Kennedy said.

Kennedy declined to discuss specific cost estimates while the evaluation is in progress, but Marchione has said that a preliminary cost estimate of recommended repairs in the first 30 schools to be examined is about $75 million.

If that estimate is extrapolated over the remaining schools, it would total $400 million, the superintendent has said. He has since said that those estimates may be high.

The school district's chief engineer, Gene Neff, also said that those estimates may be somewhat inflated and refused to speculate on specific numbers. But he acknowledged that the final cost will be very high.

"The buildings are old, and they have been somewhat ignored for many years," Neff said.

Perks-Reutter engineers expect to complete on-site school surveys within the next few weeks and to turn their results over to the county in the early summer. Neff said school facilities officials will likely develop a repair plan by November.

The tentative plan calls for the district to tackle the elementary school repairs first, then move to middle schools and high schools, Neff and Davis said.

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