Arundel board weighs cost of air-conditioning schools

Window units at 29 sites are being considered

September 30, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Liz League visited Benfield Elementary School during the first week of classes to talk to the pupils about the Parent-Teacher Association.

They barely paid attention.

"They had blood-red faces. They were sweaty," said League, whose two daughters attend the Severna Park school. "They had their heads down on the desks. There was no energy in the room."

She quickly became an advocate for air conditioning at Benfield Elementary, one of 29 schools in Anne Arundel County without central air.

After hearing some parents complain about hot, stuffy schools for years, the school board will decide next week whether to put money for window units into next year's budget. At least one board member is hesitant, questioning the noise and distraction the units would cause.

Superintendent Carol S. Parham requested $780,000 to start a five-year program to install window units in the classrooms of the 29 schools.

"I recommend it with regret," Parham said. "Clearly, it's not the most cost-effective way to go. ... This is a way to acknowledge that there is an issue with the air quality, that we want to address it, and the window air conditioning is a stopgap measure."

The most vocal supporters of air conditioning are the parents and children of Benfield, a 39-year-old red-brick school with walls of windows that face the morning sun.

About 10 pupils showed up at the school board's public hearing on the budget, to tell about the oppressive heat in their school and the long lines for water.

To emphasize their point, they made a giant poster - so big it took four of them to hold it - depicting before-and-after classroom scenes should their dream of air conditioning come true.

"Before" showed masses of sweaty pupils, their tongues hanging out and their faces dripping, queuing up at the water fountain. "After" showed bright, happy children seated at their desks with pencils poised for action.

"People are really sweaty when they come in from recess, and it's hard to cool down," said Sophia League, 8.

Her sister, Olivia, 10, added, "We can't concentrate on any of our work because we're so hot."

But school board member Joseph Foster of Linthicum wonders whether the pupils will be able to concentrate any better with noisy air conditioners whirring all day long.

"I'm not sure window air conditioning is the best idea, not if students can't hear their teacher and can't discuss subjects," he said. "I want to make sure we don't do something that could negatively impact the learning environment."

Foster made it clear, though, that something must be done to cool down the schools without central air. He's just not sure what it is.

Board member Vaughn Brown of Hanover said he supports installing the window units because they are "the only cost-effective way" to cool the schools. Window units for all 29 schools would cost about $5 million, while central air for those schools might run to $50 million, school officials said.

The window units hold hidden costs, said maintenance supervisor Ed Almes. An engineer must be hired to survey the electrical requirements of each school. Then Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. would have to upgrade the electrical system. And then there would be the day-to-day upkeep, such as filter changes.

All told, Almes said, the installation of window units would cost about $140,000 per elementary school and $250,000 per middle school. Only one high school - Arundel High in Gambrills - lacks central air, but that would change during a $28 million renovation and addition project.

Even if board members are in favor of window units - and it appears they are - that doesn't necessarily mean the air conditioners will be installed. Ultimately, the county executive and County Council have the final say over what gets funded in the school budget.

Last year, school officials asked for $37 million in construction and renovation money. They got $26 million.

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