School repair costs on rise

Balto. County needs to spend $530 million over next eight years

April 21, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Almost $317 million in repairs are needed at Baltimore County's middle schools, high schools and special education centers, boosting the school system's total repair bill to more than a half-billion dollars over the next eight years.

The $530 million tab -- announced by school officials last night -- is far greater than anticipated a year ago. At that time, estimates of $400 million were dismissed by school and county officials as too high.

"It's larger than we thought it was going to be, but it's not totally unexpected," said Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "We knew that the schools were in need of a lot of money in repairs."

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

"We have neglected our maintenance program for many years," said school Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione. "We plan not to be in this situation again."

Baltimore County's repair bill comes as school systems throughout Maryland and the nation face staggering costs to fix their aging buildings.

Baltimore City educators estimate they need to spend $606 million to repair their schools, and Anne Arundel County schools need an estimated $400 million.

The state plans to spend $255 million on school construction next year, much of it for repairs.

Last night, the Baltimore County school board received the long-overdue second half of a survey by a Philadelphia company of the condition of all the system's buildings.

An analysis by Perks-Reutter Associates of the county's 101 elementary schools was released in September.

The $1 million survey was commissioned in 1997 by the County Council after air-quality problems forced two elementary schools to close temporarily.

$213 million for elementaries

The elementary school survey pinpointed $213 million needed for such work as boiler replacements, roof repairs, painting and the upgrading of electrical and plumbing systems. By the time the survey was released, nearly $30 million had been spent fixing other problems.

The latest findings show that the county's 60 middle schools, high schools, alternative schools and special education centers need $316.8 million worth of similar types of repairs. That figure doesn't include the cost of major repairs and renovations recently completed or under way at some schools, including Towson High.

More than $35 million in funding for those middle school and high school repairs has been allocated in previous years' budgets, leaving the county to find $281.7 million.

As engineers were conducting the survey, potentially hazardous conditions were corrected immediately. Last fall, work was done quickly to repair an outdoor stairway at Lansdowne High School that was falling apart.

Baltimore County and school officials plan to repair elementary schools before middle and high schools, fixing the oldest schools first.

$108 million in budget

Ruppersberger's capital budget proposal for 1999-2000 proposes $108 million for major maintenance, in addition to $4 million to fix Randallstown Elementary and another $4.2 million to repair roofs.

In all, 49 elementary schools are to be repaired during the next year. All the elementary school work is expected to be completed within three years.

The county then will turn to middle and high schools. Davis said the county will not be able to afford to do those repairs quite as quickly, particularly if an economic downturn occurs and the county does not have huge surplus tax revenues.

Davis said the middle and high school work could take as long as five years after the elementary schools repairs are completed, which would mean that all of the county's school repairs would not be finished until 2007.

"If the economy stays the same, we may be able to do it in three years, but it's probably going to take longer than three years," Davis said.

School closing procedures

Also last night, the school board began discussing procedures that would be used next fall to consider closing schools because of low enrollment.

School officials have said they will discuss whether one or more elementary schools in the southeastern area of the county should be closed because enrollment is declining.

The earliest any schools might close would be in fall 2000, and no schools have been targeted for closure.

The biggest possible changes in the policy involve shortening the length of time from 15 months to 12 months in which to consider closing a school.

The board also must decide whether members of the group considering a closing would come from the schools within the affected area rather than a countywide committee.

Board members agreed to postpone any decision on changing the policy until they have a work session on the use of school buildings.

No date was set for the work session.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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