School repair plans lag

Millions lie unspent as Balto. County seeks contractors

Wait could increase costs

Parents impatient for start of upgrades to elementaries

January 08, 2001|By Lynn Anderson and David Nitkin | Lynn Anderson and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County school officials are running at least a year behind on a plan to renovate 40 elementary schools - a delay that has angered parents and forced County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger to scale back a request for school repair funding from the state.

In July 1999, state officials awarded the school system $30 million for renovations at a number of schools, including the 40 elementary schools. Today, most of the buildings are waiting for new boilers, ceiling tiles or lighting.

As a result, $23.5 million in state funds from the 1999-2000 fiscal year has not been spent, along with $38.1 million allotted in this fiscal year.

State officials say no other jurisdiction is sitting on as much unspent money as Baltimore County. In nearby Howard and Anne Arundel, suburban counties that are facing rapid growth, school officials have devised strategies so that projects start before state money becomes available, speeding their completion.

"We've been waiting for all these renovations for years," said Katherine Lichtenstein, president of Fort Garrison Elementary School PTA. "I think we are all aware of all the bureaucracies that go on within the school system and that is generally just frustrating."

School and county leaders say they are not troubled by the delay. They say they are well along in planning for a half-billion-dollar improvement program, which they call the most ambitious in the state. Many contracts will be awarded by the summer, they say.

"We're not worried at all about putting the money to good use," said Charles A. Herndon, a school system spokesman. "What you are going to see is an acceleration of spending very soon."

Added Donald F. Krempel, associate superintendent for physical facilities: "We have, in the process, 12 contracts with the state that they haven't even logged yet. That money is in the works. We're looking pretty good."

But leaving money unspent carries risks.

Obsolete cost estimates

Project cost estimates conducted months or years ago can quickly become inaccurate because of inflation in the construction market. School officials are considering trimming or delaying projects - such as window replacement - because their cost estimates have proved to be too low.

"The problem is the cost estimates for some of these projects were done two years ago," said Yale Stenzler, executive director of Maryland's Interagency Committee for State Public School Construction. "The numbers we are talking about, I would say, are significant."

Because of the millions in un- spent state funds, Ruppersberger decided this year to curtail his annual request for construction money. A year ago, he asked for $42 million, but this year reduced that to $18 million. Administration officials say it would be inappropriate to ask for more.

When they do return to the state for additional funding, however, it might not be available. An economic downturn could reduce the amount of state money available for the county's middle and high schools, which are scheduled to be renovated after elementary schools are upgraded.

The delays stem, in part, from the school system's decision to hire a construction manager to oversee the renovation program. While the move was lauded by many as a way to increase professionalism and reduce costs, finding a manager took longer than expected. 3/D International of Houston was hired after a six-month search.

Then the first bids started arriving. They were higher than anticipated, and school officials decided to rebid the projects. The second round of bids is trickling in, but officials say they are still high.

"We're roughly at the point where we are 10 percent over our estimated budget," said Krempel, "and I think that's remarkable, given the current market."

School officials announced in November that the first phase of elementary school improvements, which covers 40 schools, could run as much as $18 million over budget.

In an effort to cut $10 million in costs, school officials might delay window replacements at most of the 40 elementary schools for another year. That would allow them to move ahead with much-needed upgrades to heating, plumbing and ventilation systems.

Board of Education members have taken a cautious approach to spending state money in an effort to be "fiscally responsible," said board member and Building Committee Chairman Jack H. J. Barnhart.

"We just can't afford to take what comes in on the first go around," he said. "I understand that by rebidding we take more time, but we have to be prudent."

Impatient parents

The delay doesn't sit well with parents.

"We've gone to the school board and they've been very understanding, but nothing happens," said Patrice Ragaini, a parent at Carroll Manor Elementary School, which has been waiting two years for repairs to heating and ventilation systems. Four months into the school year, teachers and pupils are dealing with an ugly mess of pipes and wiring, the result of unfinished work.

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