Many school buildings in state are found to be substandard

But survey of Md. districts is criticized by leaders

November 07, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

State education officials reported results of a survey yesterday that indicated many of the 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.

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 contending the data was not only unreliable but unhelpful.

The survey, completed last month by the Task Force to Study Public School Facilities, detailed the results of a 10-month audit of nearly every public school building in the state. School officials said this is the first time the state has undertaken such a large-scale facilities assessment.

Each school district rated its own needs and submitted data to the task force's advisory panel, headed by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The state spot-checked the information reported by the schools.

Although the task force won't come up with the potential price tag of meeting the long list of needs until next month, Grasmick said, the state plans to use the survey to set priorities - and wants school districts to do the same.

"We're saying to school systems, `Please use this data, look at it and implement it into your planning,'" she said.

The survey evaluated building conditions and capacity in 1,342 schools, as well as each building's ability to support educational programs and support services.

Statewide, more than 30 percent of schools were rated inadequate in six of the 31 areas measured: student capacity, accessibility, existing prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms, secondary science, fine arts and health services.

Some school systems, such as Howard and Montgomery counties, reported few areas of need. But districts such as Baltimore, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County indicated that their schools met the survey's standards in only a handful of areas.

Allen Abend, deputy director of the state's Public School Construction Program, said the standards set by the survey are "very definitive," and don't leave much room for interpretation.

But many local school leaders disagreed.

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

Self-reporting presents an intrinsic risk for potentially skewed data, some school officials said.

Baltimore City, for example, reported all of its schools as failing to meet the standard for having adequate "potable water."

But that's not necessarily true, city officials said.

The system is about to embark on a lead-testing program of fountains and sinks and "felt obligated" to list their schools as inadequate until the testing is completed.

In Baltimore County, results showed more than half of schools failing to meet the standards 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.

Abend, of the Public School Construction Program, noted that the survey's results did not warrant sanctions or immediate action, and that the standards were, in some cases, exceptionally high.

In the "air quality" section of the survey, for example, the standard is set higher than in most homes, Abend said.

In Anne Arundel County, where half of the system's 117 schools failed to meet the state standard for building security - and 62 percent were not accessible to the disabled - school officials said they were not surprised by the survey results.

"The buildings are old, and standards have changed," said Associate Superintendent Greg Nourse, adding that most of the deficient areas are accounted for in the school system's long-term construction plan.

Nourse questioned other school systems' results, particularly ones which reported full compliance in some areas.

"We were very honest in terms of going through and following the state standards," Nourse said.

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