Schools count down to 2001 opening day

Face lift: Baltimore County is winding up a $530 million overhaul of 44 elementary schools, the largest renovation program in county history. And it all goes on parade Tuesday.

September 01, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

When Orems Elementary School opens at 8:40 a.m. on Tuesday, everything will be perfect -- even if it takes the staff and the contractors until 8:39 a.m. to make it so.

"That's not a promise, that's a guarantee," custodian George Williams told Principal Darla D. Evans as she roamed the halls yesterday, checking to see what still needs to be done after a $3 million renovation of the 38-year-old school in eastern Baltimore County.

But even perfection is a relative term. Although classrooms are ready, along with a new cafeteria, central office and nurse's suite, contractors will still be working on the heating system and some small electrical details. They will work after school and on weekends, Evans said. The contractors have become a familiar part of Orems' landscape. After all, they've been in and out of the school for a year.

Orems is one of 44 elementary schools that have been renovated and revamped in the past 12 months, the first phase in a $530 million district-wide overhaul that has been called the largest renovation program in the county's history. The repairs include new plumbing, new boilers and new electrical work.

Schools also have been brought up to code, where possible, with the addition of handicap-accessible doors and restrooms.

Orems is one of several schools where work will not be completed when Baltimore County schools start the 2001-2002 school year. The plan was to have all work done by yesterday. Instead, many schools will have to fit in the remaining repairs around the school day.

Donald F. Krempel, executive director of physical facilities for the school district, said the delays were caused, in part, by the once-booming economy. When the projects went out to bid, some received no bids at all and had to be re-bid, pushing the schedule back.

At Woodmoor Elementary School, some ceiling panels are missing. Krempel said that's because inspectors still need to check the electrical work. "It doesn't mean schools aren't safe," Krempel said.

Only one county school, Randallstown Elementary, will not open Tuesday. Those children have another week off, until Sept. 13, because of four major projects at that aging school. But students at the county's other 161 schools will receive no reprieve.

As recently as a month ago, it was hard to believe Orems would be ready, Evans acknowledged.

The cafeteria and auditorium-gym were crammed with items that had been removed from other parts of the building. Electrical cords dangled from the ceilings and the floors were perpetually gritty from dust and construction debris.

At moments, Evans said, she had her doubts. "I thought, `Oh no, are we going to make it?'"

Parent Denise Zimmerman, who works in the Middle River school's cafeteria, assumed the opening of school would be delayed.

"When I came up here in the beginning of August, I thought, `No way,'" Zimmerman said, standing in the school's foyer. "It's a really, really, really big change."

To reassure parents, Orems held a "re-dedication" Thursday, inviting families to the school for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception.

"We wanted to let them see we were ready for their boys and girls," Evans said.

Orems still needs new boilers, but Evans isn't worried about starting the school year without them. She believes everything will be in working order by Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, Baltimore County schools are moving into Phase 2 of the six-year program, which will see $113 million spent on 46 elementary schools.

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