Parents raise funds to help cool schools

Families impatient for system to install air conditioning

`Hot and uncomfortable'

Almost $15,000 collected, but only a fraction of costs

April 01, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Tired of seeing their children come home from hot, sweaty days spent in west county schools without air conditioning - and tired of waiting for the Anne Arundel County school board to pay to install a cooling system - parents from Arundel middle and high schools are raising money for the work themselves.

Parents from Arundel Middle School in Odenton have collected $12,000, putting them well on their way to their goal of air conditioning the top floor by the time school resumes in the fall. Parents from Arundel High School in Gambrills have collected $2,800, but they need much more primarily to upgrade the school's aging electrical system, which could not handle an entire complement of window units.

Arundel High is the only high school in the county without air conditioning (though Severna Park High School's auditorium isn't cooled). About 40 middle and elementary schools go without. If the funding is available, Arundel High is scheduled to receive central air conditioning at a cost of $8.9 million by fall 2004, which means today's freshman will never feel the cool.

Many people don't want to wait.

"Last May was really hot and uncomfortable," said Joni Engelbretson, who has a son at Arundel High and a daughter at Arundel Middle. "The kids would come home sweating. They'd say, `I thought you were going to get us air conditioning.'"

So, Engelbretson, whose family moved to the county in 1999, set out to join the committee that she assumed was working on the issue. Finding none, she became a committee of one and has since been joined by a half-dozen other parents, calling themselves the AIR Committee.

Wednesday, Engelbretson will ask the school board to help fund her cause. Installing window units in each of the middle school's classrooms will require about $37,000 per floor to cover such needs as electric work and labor.

Equipping the high school will be more costly. The wiring must be upgraded. That, along with the price of 70 window units, will run about $235,000, according to school district figures. (If central air is installed there, as planned, then the window units can be moved to some of the elementary and middle schools.)

Engelbretson wants the board to help pay for the difference between those costs and the amount raised by parents.

"We do need the county to chip in now," she said last week.

Too hot to work

She said she wonders how students and teachers can get anything done when indoor temperatures are 10 degrees warmer than they are outside. Also, she wonders how high school students can compete with students from other schools on SATs and other exams when they are at a disadvantage during the warm months.

"I really think that the cooler temperatures will help kids' learning," said Arundel Middle Principal Paul L. Strickler, who provides fans for each room and asks custodians to open the windows in the morning. The $2,800 raised for Arundel High should be enough to buy three or four window units for "the worst areas" - business education classrooms with 30 computers apiece and the home economics room that includes an oven.

"There should be enough electricity to support this," Engelbretson wrote in a memo to the board. Officials said the electrical system as it is couldn't handle more stress.

Arundel High School, built in 1950, was renovated in the early 1980s, but the updating did not include central air. The renovation plans called for air conditioning, but they also said Arundel High students would have to be moved to Meade High School while the construction was being done, putting that campus on double sessions.

Money ran out

Parents objected, said Gregory V. Nourse, associate schools superintendent, and the work was done while the students attended Arundel High. As a result, the project took longer to finish, and the district ran out of money.

"They had to give up on the air conditioning," Nourse said.

The board will listen to Engelbretson's pleas and decide what, if anything, to do.

"Certainly they need to have air conditioning, particularly in the high school," said board member Joseph Foster. He said he would favor the expenditure, but only if he was guaranteed that installing and removing and reinstalling new window units wouldn't be "wasting money."

"I wish we could get [district-wide air conditioning] all done," he said, "but there are just so many schools that need it."

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