School repairs must take center stage

Crumbling structures : Anne Arundel can no longer afford to put off needed fixes to aging buildings.

Agenda 2000 Anne Arundel County

January 30, 2000

FROM A DISTANCE, most Anne Arundel County public school buildings look just fine.

But go closer -- close enough to get the view children and teachers have every day -- and you'll soon notice the cracks, the holes and leaks. You may feel the draft or smell the stale air.

Pick any school. There are plenty of problems.

Take Bates Middle School in Annapolis, built in 1934 as a high school for African-American students. Missing pieces of concrete unmask the metal support rods around window flames and on the building's canopies, which shade entrances. Conditions have been getting worse and worse; repairs are way overdue.

At Severna Park Middle School, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust if you're entering the hallway on a sunny day. The orderly students perhaps are used to the light deprivation as they walk this unmaculate but dim corridor from one class to the next.

The outdated fixtures in this 33-year-old building consume too much energy and squeeze out too little light. Overhead, yellowing ceiling tiles are filled with asbestos. And outside are scores of rusting window frames.

Some have been replaced, but it's just a matter of time before rain seeps through the old ones.

The linoleum-tiled gym floor at the Phoenix Annapolis Center (a school for children who have had disciplinary problems) looks like a rough quilt. It has a dozen or so bright tiles that were patched in to replace old ones. It's so rough that children dribbling basketballs must beware of bad hops

But the gym floor is in better shape than some second-floor classrooms, where tiles are in tatters, exposing parts of the subflooring.

Some progress: The school system has replaced some of the single-pane windows, reducing the 60-year-old school's daily oil use from 140 gallons to 125 gallons. The energy savings -- and warmth -- would be greater if all the windows were replaced.

This is what happens when schools are neglected for years. It's what happens when school officials are consumed by other budget priorities and deal with repairs in a piecemeal fashion.

Buildings fall down-almost literally. The overall bill for repairs heads skyward. Now Anne Arundel needs an estimated $400 million just to get its large stock of aging facilities up to current standards.

Of course, Anne Arundel isn't the only district having trouble keeping up with school repairs.

Two years ago, the General Accounting Office in Washington reported that 60 per cent of the country's schools had at least one major problem. Repairs and replacement costs were estimated at $112 billion nationwide.

Last year, Baltimore County estimated that it will need $530 million to fix all of its buildings, four-fifths of which were built before 1970. Baltimore City public schools last year estimated repair costs at $606 million for its aging buildings.

In Anne Arundel County, the list continues to grow, and the bill is only running higher. The county must stop the deterioration-- now.

That means County Executive Janet S. Owens again will have to come up with more capital budget money to fix county schools. She gave $40 million last year that went for catch-up repairs on several schools, but that money barely dented the county's problem.

Members of the county's delegation to the General Assembly also must tell their story in Annapolis.

They plan to ask legislators for as much as $25 million during this session, but they cannot assume that the governor and state educators know how old and how badly maintained Anne Arundel's public schools are.

Can the system's 74,000 children afford to wait? A look around the district suggests maybe not. Routine maintenance and replacements have been held hostage to budget concerns for so long that some smal problems may soon become life-threatening.

The canopies over the entrance to Bates Middle, for example, are stable, though they look like they could lose another chunk of concrete at any time. They may not pose an immediate threat to children and teachers walking under it, but maintenance officials are monitoring the school's condition. If the structure becomes unstable, emergency repairs would be needed But what sense does it make to wait until the point of near-collapse before intervening?

That's the kind of thinking that led to this problem in the first place.

Schools officials have been trying to keep old buildings going the same way someone might patch an old car to keep it running well past its time. Too often, school officials have had a difficult time getting state money for new buildings, so they've patched up old ones over and over.

Two thirds of Arundel's public school buildings were constructed before I970. Forty-two were built before 1960. The county's oldest public school, Annapolis Elementary, just greeted a third century: It was built in 1896.

The result? Laundry lists, like the one for Annapolis Middle School, built in 1964.

Its repair order:

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