Our crumbling schools Baltimore County: Tax cuts nonsensical with massive school-repair bills looming.

March 21, 1998

A SURVEY SHOWING that Baltimore County faces a massive bill to repair its public schools comes as no surprise. Its school buildings are old. More than 80 percent were built before 1970 -- 28 years ago.

The problem is national: The General Accounting Office reports that 60 percent of the country's public kindergarten through 12th-grade schools have at least one major problem, with repair and replacement costs estimated at $112 billion. Conditions in city schools, including Baltimore's, are the worst, but many suburban schools are in bad shape, too.

America's schools find themselves in this fix because constituent pressure on education systems to hire more teachers, buy new books and add classroom space has never included an equally insistent demand for the money to maintain and repair these buildings.

As one local school facilities official notes, "Almost everything you look at in a school" -- carpeting, windows, wiring, paint -- "you can say it can wait another year, let's get another teacher."

The trouble is we've waited too long. Now everything's failing at once, and we don't have enough money to remedy that, especially at a time when suburban development continues to provoke cries for more school space to handle growing enrollments.

Baltimore County encountered mild criticism last year when it spent $1 million for a detailed survey of school conditions. But it was a wise move. Now that officials know what's wrong with each school, they can set up a repair plan based on demonstrated need. Otherwise, repair funds tend to flow first to communities with the loudest voices, which means schools in other communities with far worse problems are often ignored.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has made school maintenance a top priority, appropriate given the acuteness of the problem. Even if the $400 million repair estimate is high, as we suspect, the county nevertheless faces a bill in the hundreds of millions. The revenue picture this year looks good, which may tempt some County Council members to cut taxes, especially in an election year.

That makes no sense. Mr. Ruppersberger is right when he says officials must set aside as much money as possible from surpluses and budget cuts to start fixing these schools. The more repairs that can be made with available cash, instead of by borrowing, the more taxpayers will save. Even then and even with help from the state, major bond issues seem unavoidable.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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