To 3 R's, add one more: Repairs

Aging public schools due costly renovations

January 29, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Age is finally catching up to Maryland's public schools.

Even as some areas race to build new classrooms to keep pace with growing enrollment, other school systems are grappling with hundreds of millions of dollars in such much-needed repairs as boiler replacements, new roofs and upgraded electrical and plumbing systems.

In recent months, Baltimore educators have found they need to spend $606 million to fix their schools.

"It would cost $70 million just to bring every classroom up to being able to have to plug them into the wall and hook them into the phone lines," said Robert Booker, chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools.

Surveys in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties suggest that those school systems might need to spend $400 million each on repairs.

"That's $1.4 billion just in three jurisdictions," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said this week as the state's Board of Public Works heard school construction requests. "We can see these needs throughout the entire state."

The needs are glaring, for instance, at Baltimore County's 69-year-old Stoneleigh Elementary School, where immigrant children learn English in a makeshift closet classroom off the school's dark basement cafeteria and where additional computers can't be installed without upgraded electric service.

"We can get the technology, but we don't have the electricity to plug it in," said Principal Marsha Roach.

The repairs aren't limited to the older, larger school systems. Even such fast-growing districts as Howard County are earmarking millions of dollars to renovate their schools.

"Most of the schools in Howard County were built in the late '60s and early '70s as Columbia developed," said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent of Howard schools. "Those schools at all levels are reaching the age where they need to receive special attention."

Howard also is spending more than $10 million to demolish and replace Ellicott Mills Middle School, built in 1939. The building has numerous structural problems -- including its inaccessibility to disabled students.

The push to renovate Maryland's older schools comes as the rest of the country faces similar problems. Across the nation, rising student enrollment means that even the oldest schools must be repaired rather than closed.

A 1995 study by the General Accounting Office estimated that it would cost $112 billion to upgrade and repair the nation's schools. New York City alone might need to spend $28 billion on its 1,028 buildings, according to a study by that city's comptroller's office.

"Aging schools is a factor in just about every larger, older school system," said Yale Stenzler, executive director of Maryland's school construction program.

Glendening's proposed budget for next year calls for $250 million in school construction spending, and much of it already is targeted at renovations, roof replacements, new computer wiring and the updating of high school science labs.

Representatives for 20 of the state's 24 school systems appeared before the Board of Public Works this week pleading for a bigger share of that $250 million. Baltimore and Baltimore County, however, are the only two school systems in the state that have hired outside engineering firms to comprehensively survey what it would take to repair all of their buildings, Stenzler said.

With so much of Maryland's money going toward school construction, Stoneleigh Elementary children even suggested to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend this week that a renovated school building be added to the list of state symbols, joining the Baltimore Oriole bird, white oak tree and black-eyed Susan.

$213 million in work

Baltimore County's plans to spend $1 million next year on repairs at Stoneleigh are part of $213 million in work that needs to be done at the county's 101 elementary schools.

County officials hope to complete the elementary school repairs during the next couple of years and then begin repairing the system's 60 middle and high schools. A survey of those schools is scheduled to be released next month, and repairs are expected to cost as much as fixing the elementary schools.

The huge costs are tied to the age of the schools; more than 80 percent were built before 1970.

For instance, $8 million is being spent to renovate the 45-year-old Catonsville High School and add a science and technology wing for about 600 additional students.

In years of tight education budgets, maintenance has often been ignored or cut in many of the area's school systems. For school boards, trimming $1 million or $2 million from building maintenance has been far less painful than cutting textbook purchases or the number of teachers.

A 13-month study by a citizens group in Anne Arundel County recently found a $134 million backlog in school maintenance, as well as a need for $283 million in renovations to 45 schools that are more than 30 years old.

The panel recommended a tax increase to help pay for the work, though that idea has not earned support among politicians.

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