Lacking in space, in need of repairs

School: Oakland Mills High is small, splintered and struggling. Parents gave school board members an up-close look at its problems and needs.

April 20, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Members of Oakland Mills High School's PTSA invited the school board to lunch at the school yesterday and served a little humble pie.

Instead of pulling out the finest linens and catering in, the parents offered sandwiches and chips on the school's splintered 30-year- old football bleachers to board members Jane B. Schuchardt, Sandra H. French, Virginia Charles and Patricia S. Gordon.

The meager meal and dangerous seats had a larger message: Oakland Mills is in dire need of renovation, the parents said. And it ought to come before any move to add classrooms or redistrict more students into the county's smallest high school.

"The reluctance when they speak of additions is that we don't want them to mean that the addition is to bring us up to 1,400 students," said PTSA member Margaret Hunt. "I don't think this facility can support that. We see the benefits of a small school."

School system officials have budgeted money to plan a 275-seat addition and a long overdue renovation. The $8.5 million project originally had been slated to begin in 2004, but was moved to next year's budget because of parent protest.

But parents want to be sure the money is first used to bring the 27-year-old facility up to the standards they see at newer, bigger high schools such as Long Reach or River Hill.

"We need that money to accommodate the students who are already here before we even think about bringing more here," parent June Magruder said.

Before the outdoor lunch, parents took the board members on a tour of Oakland Mills, pointing out some of the many ways the school is struggling for space and equipment.

The choir meets in a too-small band room; the weight-lifting class meets in what was once a choir room.

Drama performances are hampered by the lack of a dressing room, stage wings and scene-shops that are being used for storage.

Lockers are the width of a senior's hand, and can't hold most winter coats.

The auxiliary gymnasium is pressed into service for dance class, wrestling and baseball batting practice. Flying baseballs and wrestling moves have broken the room's dance mirrors so often, staff members can't afford to fix them anymore, so they sit cracked, chipped and taped on the wall.

Unable to use practice mats because they've contracted ringworm too many times from them, dancers practice barefoot on the same floor where glass has just been swept. The floor is so inappropriate for dance use that a renowned professional dance instructor coming to visit the school next week refused to teach the class in that room.

Hallways, auditorium aisles, ticket booths and practice rooms all are used to store equipment instead of for their intended purposes.

"If you bring 300 more kids in here, we're going to end up shutting down programs," Principal Marshall Peterson said.

Some of the parents recently toured 5-year-old Long Reach High School and 7-year-old River Hill and came home depressed by the disparity.

One parent complained to the board that while drama students at River Hill change stage lighting using a mechanical Genie Lift, Oakland Mills students are using a wobbly, old 16-foot wooden ladder.

Long Reach has a music suite with a band room twice the size of the one at Oakland Mills, spacious storage areas, four individual practice rooms, a separate chorus room and laboratory for strings instruction. Dance classes take place in a minitheater with theatrical lighting, a sound system, two walls of mirrors and dance barres.

River Hill has a golf cart, purchased with school funds, to ferry staff and equipment across athletic fields.

"If you bring in kids from some of these schools with all these modern facilities and bring them here where you need a screwdriver just to open the display cases," Magruder said, "you're not going to have a real smooth transition."

Board members said they were sympathetic to the parents' concerns, but were limited in what they could do about it.

"They're not going to be a Long Reach," said Schuchardt, board chairwoman. "If that's what they're hoping for, I think it's a little far out because that's not going to be what they're going to get."

Traditionally, additions are built on schools before renovations are done, said French, the board vice chairwoman, so that students can be moved into the new wing while the renovations are being completed. The one school that reversed that process ended up regretting it, she said.

"There were a lot of safety issues and noise issues and harassment issues of workers toward high school girls," French said. "It was awful. We do not want to go there again. At least I don't."

Board members are in a difficult position.

Although hallways and program areas are cramped, Oakland Mills has more classroom space than its student body needs, making it a prime target to house some of the 4,000 high school students expected in the county over the next 10 years.

Many county high schools - such as River Hill - are severely crowded.

"This has been a constant challenge to every principal in every building to have to accommodate all these programs," French said.

"But if you add more students to the school the way that it is, you're compounding the issues we already have," said PTSA President Doria Osborn.

Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations, said it was too early to tell how many of the requests by parents would be covered by the money allotted for Oakland Mills.

A planning team probably will begin looking at the school's specific needs in August, he said.

"The planning committee looks at everything the community wants," he said. "Usually the list that the people want is longer than the amount of money."

Osborn said parents know everything won't be fixed overnight.

"We just want them to maintain their commitment to older schools and renovating them," she said.

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