Most Carroll schools called substandard

But survey of buildings in Maryland criticized as subjective, inadequate

Review `groundbreaking'

Poor rating doesn't mean students unsafe, state says

Carroll County

November 07, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A majority of Carroll County schools have elementary classrooms that are too small, lighting systems that are too dim and health suites that are improperly configured, according to a new state survey released yesterday of nearly every public school building in Maryland.

The audit indicated that many public school buildings in Maryland are failing to meet local, state or national standards in areas ranging from air quality to building accessibility to student capacity.

But no sooner were the results made public than many school system leaders in the Baltimore region took issue with the conclusions reached in the survey, calling into question its methodology - much of the information was self-reported, and spot-checked by the state - and contending the data was not only unreliable but also unhelpful.

State school officials stressed yesterday that receiving "inadequate" ratings in any of the 31 standards assessed does not mean students' health or safety is at risk.

Rather, state education leaders said, inadequate ratings should flag for local school systems areas that facilities staffs should take a look at when a particular school building is renovated.

At least one third of Carroll's 38 schools received "inadequate" ratings in nine of the 31 standards assessed in the 10-month survey: acoustics, lighting, student capacity, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, general elementary classrooms, general secondary classrooms, fine arts, health services and itinerant services.

State education leaders trumpeted the survey as "groundbreaking."

"This is a first cut. It is unprecedented. And it is what it is," said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who served as chairwoman of the Task Force to Study Public School Facilities, which was established last year by the General Assembly. "It does provide a basis for raising questions and looking at needs."

Raymond Prokop, director of facilities for Carroll County schools, called the survey "superficial, vague and not especially helpful." He said several survey questions - including one that asked school systems to evaluate whether "adequate space is provided for teachers to plan" - were open to interpretation.

"We've expressed concern with the terminology of the standards," Prokop said. "They can call those things standards but if they don't give us something to compare it to, it's not a standard. It's subjective. If they said we needed something like 300 square feet of planning space per 20 teachers, that would be a standard we could follow."

In Carroll, 15 elementary schools - or 71 percent - did not meet the standard that requires 90 percent of all classrooms to be a minimum of 800 net square feet.

But the survey results do not indicate whether one classroom was too small or whether a majority of a school's educational spaces were not large enough.

Twenty-one Carroll schools - or 57 percent - did not meet the standards for fine arts, although Prokop said the most common problem seemed to be a shortage of storage space for instruments in music rooms.

And 23 schools - or 61 percent - did not have adequate lighting, according to standards from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, which call for "a minimum of 50 foot-candles ... on horizontal work surfaces" and emergency lighting systems in all educational facilities.

Prokop said that testing the light levels in schools was something that building supervisors had not done before.

"That data was probably some of the more helpful information to us," he said. "You design a school for certain lighting levels but we don't go around and test them after a building is built.

"In schools that came back with really low levels, we'll go out and look at that and might create a maintenance project to improve the lighting there."

Statewide, more than 30 percent of the 1,342 schools surveyed were rated inadequate in six areas: student capacity, accessibility, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, secondary science, fine arts and health services.

Other results varied.

Many school systems, such as Howard and Montgomery counties, reported few areas of inadequacy.

Others, including Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City, indicated that only a handful of areas are even close to meeting standards.

Howard County, which has always received strong local funding for school construction and renovation, met nearly all of the standards, except those having to do with capacity and space.

In Baltimore County, results showed more than half of schools out of compliance in 12 of the 31 areas measured, from air quality to security to fine arts classroom space.

However, since school systems reported their own data to the state, they all may not have held themselves to the same standard, said Donald F. Krempel, Baltimore County's executive director of physical facilities.

"We were probably more critical of ourselves than an outside evaluator would have been," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said.

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