School repair shortfall found Study of elementaries in Balto. County finds $213 million price tags

September 09, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Repairing the most urgent problems of Baltimore County's 101 elementary school buildings will cost almost $213 million over the next three years, county and school officials revealed yesterday.

The final estimate from a comprehensive survey of every elementary school is 15 percent to 20 percent more than originally predicted, but county officials say their budget plans anticipated all but about $25 million of the money.

"It's a big cost, but it's what we need to pay to fix the schools," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "We can't afford to build new schools for everyone, so we need to modernize the ones we have."

With a continued good economy and the likelihood of more state aid, the shortfall is not expected to mean a tax increase or additional county debt, county officials said yesterday.

"Of course, our challenge is to acquire that sum of money to begin the process of repairing the buildings," said Baltimore County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione.

Last night, the Baltimore County school board was presented with the elementary school portion of a survey by a Philadelphia company of the condition of all the district's buildings. The analysis by Perks-Reutter Associates of the county's 60 middle and high schools is expected to be released this fall.

Marchione had speculated in the spring that the total repair bill might be as much as $400 million over the next few years. And school officials -- anticipating the huge need for repairs -- last month proposed a $74.2 million capital budget for 1999-2000 that includes $62 million for major maintenance and repairs.

More than 80 percent of the system's schools were built before 1970, and, until recently, building maintenance was often ignored or cut when budgets were tight.

The survey indicated a $242 million need for such work as boiler replacements, roof repairs, painting and the upgrading of electrical and plumbing systems. Nearly $30 million has been spent during the past year to fix some problems, leaving the county with a remaining price tag of $213 million for elementary school repairs.

The survey was commissioned last year by the County Council after air-quality problems forced two elementary schools to close temporarily. The study identified several minor conditions potentially hazardous to students, including one regarding air quality, which have been corrected.

The list of repairs immediately needed at elementary schools appears to have little relation to the age of the school.

For example, the county's oldest elementary school -- Randallstown, opened in 1908 -- needs $1.9 million worth of repairs, in addition to the $530,000 done, according to the survey. But Shady Spring Elementary -- opened in 1977 -- needs repairs totaling $3.5 million.

"This is the cost that comes with neglecting the maintenance of the schools," said Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis. "Some schools that were built in the 1970s have never had any maintenance."

Some of the repairs are under way, and county officials said they want to complete the elementary school repairs -- working from the oldest to the newest buildings -- by the end of the 2000-2001 school year. Repairs then would begin on the middle and high schools, county officials said.

A bond referendum that is to go before county voters in November includes about $74 million for major maintenance and roof repairs, said county budget director Fred Homan.

County officials had anticipated obtaining a total of $56 million for repairs from the state in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, and spending about $55 million of the county's budget surplus.

That leaves the county about $25 million to $30 million short of the $213 million cost estimate.

Davis and Homan said they don't believe the county can afford to borrow more money for school repairs, so they hope to win more money from the state or hope the strong economy TTC continues to produce higher-than-projected county revenues.

"We're very lucky that this is coming at a time when we have a lot of cash," Davis said.

County officials anticipate that the repairs to the middle and high schools will take another three years, and they declined to speculate about how much more money would be required. While the county has fewer middle and high schools than elementary schools, those buildings are larger and might undergo more wear and tear, they said.

Copies of the elementary schools survey will be available for viewing in the school system's five area offices, Marchione said.

The school board is to begin discussing the survey at its Sept. 17 capital-budget work session.

Board members will hear testimony at a capital-budget hearing tonight from parents and students who want repair work done at their schools -- as well as from those who believe new schools are needed in some areas of the county.

Tonight's hearing will begin at 7 p.m. at the school system's Educational Support Services Building, 6901 N. Charles St.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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