Study fuels school debate

Air quality report raises safety issues at Charles Plaza site

Building to be renovated

Carbon dioxide level at planned academy was too high in 1999

March 11, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Debate over a downtown high school in Charles Plaza escalated last week after a 2-year-old report of air quality problems surfaced, raising questions about the safety of the building.

The report, written by the Johns Hopkins University's Office of Safety and Environmental Health in September 1999, said the classrooms in a Charles Plaza building had higher-than-acceptable levels of carbon dioxide that could result in headaches and lethargy.

But the building's owner says those air quality claims are irrelevant because the building will be renovated and retested before students enter the school. Critics are raising the issue as a last-ditch effort to derail the project, said David H. Hillman, chief executive officer of Southern Management Corp. and the owner of the building.

Baltimore school officials plan to open a small high school on the second floor of the building with 80 to 90 students in the fall. The air quality report fueled an argument between school leaders and businesses over whether the city's main artery is an appropriate place for a high school.

School officials, eager to launch a major reform of the city's troubled high schools this fall, quickly selected the former site of Johns Hopkins' downtown center for one of its first new high schools, without consulting all of the neighboring businesses. The school board voted two weeks ago to sign a lease with Hillman.

Announcement of the plan even before the board's vote brought a round of criticism from some members of the business community, including the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. But within a week, the group had flipped its position and supported the idea.

The high school also gained support from hotels and banks, institutions that employ and train many of the students as part of their school day.

Last week, however, a group of businesses and institutions near Charles Plaza wrote a letter to the school system, saying they believe in the concept of a downtown high school but that a group of teen-agers coming and going from school in Charles Plaza each day would be detrimental to the effort to redevelop Charles Street.

Mayor Martin O'Malley also entered the debate last week, saying he hoped another location might be found, particularly if health issues exist at that site.

The health issues were first raised in 1999 when Eva Lane, director of Johns Hopkins' downtown center, requested an air quality test. She worked for the center for 10 years and said "there were air quality issues when we worked there."

By the time the air quality report was done, she said, Hopkins was beginning to move out of the building. The university did not request changes to the building to alleviate the problem.

The center has since moved to a nearby building owned by Peter G. Angelos, who is protesting the high school at Charles Plaza.

"Clearly, Johns Hopkins has no idea what the current conditions are there or what the plans are for dealing with any issues. Any experience we had clearly is potentially irrelevant to the future development of the space," said Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the university.

Hillman, however, claims that Johns Hopkins had its report concocted several years ago to get out of a lease so the center could move into Angelos' building. O'Shea denied that allegation.

City schools chief Carmen V. Russo said whatever health issues may have existed in 1999 will be corrected during renovations, which will have to be finished before the school opens. The ventilation system and ducts will be replaced, according to Russo.

"All codes and requirements for schools will be met," Russo said. "Certainly we wouldn't put any adults or children in a building that couldn't pass scrupulous testing."

Russo said school officials met with an architect to discuss the renovations to the building.

Hillman also sees another motive behind dredging up the 1999 report.

"This is just an amateurist attempt by a bunch of racists to screw up a deal," Hillman said. "The majority of the high school population is African-American. They are not comfortable with all those kids downtown. It is nonsense."

One of the opponents of the plan, Thomas N. Marudas, representing Angelos' law offices, responded by saying: "That doesn't merit a comment."

The 12-year lease with Southern Management Corp. approved by the city school board Feb. 26 clears the way for a finance and travel and tourism academy in a second floor of Charles Plaza.

The students, who would come from all over the city, would have to have a C average and 90 percent attendance in middle school to be accepted into the program. They would have to wear uniforms four days a week and business attire the fifth day.

O'Malley and some business leaders continue to suggest that the school system look at other locations. Russo said the system has visited every suggested site, but none are suitable.

Now that it has the school board's approval, the system will sign a lease with Hillman soon, she said, unless another location can be found. The system would have an option to get out of the lease within three years if the location is not working.

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