Too many repairs, too little money for schools

Facilities: The heat wave that has shut some buildings brings problems of the city system more into the forefront.

May 25, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

At quiet time last week, in the middle of reading Goblins Don't Play Video Games, third-grader Demetria Pinnick had to stop to pull on her pink Barbie jacket.

"It's coooold," the 9-year-old whined softly, her tiny voice barely audible above the whoosh of frigid air blasting from the ceiling vent above her desk.

Even while Demetria and her William Paca Elementary School classmates had to don sweaters or pull their arms penguinlike through their uniform shirts to get warm, their teacher, Whitney Madura - eight months pregnant and counting - was thrilled. The sweltering week before, with the air conditioning on the fritz, temperatures hit close to 90 degrees inside the 28-year-old building, shutting down the East Baltimore school for three days.

Oppressive heat in city schools has become common.

In the past two weeks, students in dozens of buildings had to be sent home early at least one day because of heat problems. Highlandtown Elementary School 215 was closed most of last week because indoor temperatures were 95 degrees or higher, teachers said.

School facilities officials were working furiously this week to fix air-conditioning failures across the system, but found themselves stymied by a discouragingly persistent problem.

With 184 school buildings, many of them 40 years old or older, there are too many repairs, and not enough time, staff - or money - to get to all.

"Sending our children into the schools in some instances is like sending them out into the middle of traffic with a 10-wheeler bearing down on them," said Jacquiline Johnson, who has two grandsons at crowded Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore. "We put them in danger."

And this year, because of big-ticket capital projects elsewhere, the city system can't count on any more money from the state than it got last year.

"Unfortunately, the [state's] Public School Construction Program, and the city, they only have a certain amount of revenue to distribute," said Carlton Epps, the school system's chief operating officer. "And they have certain priorities."

Air-conditioning issues are high on Epps' priority list, but there are innumerable problems for the system's third-in-command to worry about. The deplorable state of city school facilities is the stuff of legend.

Leaky roofs. Crumbling ceilings. Bathrooms with no stall doors. Windows that have turned a murky gray. Front doors that don't close or won't lock. Lead in the water.

Lake Clifton-Eastern High School is sinking. Mold is growing at Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has found the condition of city schools so "shocking" that it is prepared, if necessary, to file a lawsuit - a tactic that has proven successful elsewhere.

"Children in Baltimore City are suffering in hot buildings with windows they can't see out of, [and] with mold aggravating their asthma," ACLU education director Bebe Verdery said. "The state has documented this and, as of now, chosen to do essentially nothing about it."

Each year, the system spends millions maintaining, improving and repairing its buildings. The majority of the money for capital improvement comes from the state and city, with the state generally providing more.

But for the past two years, the state has given less than the city. This year, the city has budgeted $16 million for school facilities, while the state has set aside $11 million - in a pot of about $125 million for the state.

"We actually expect that next year will be worse than this year," said David Lever, executive director of the Public School Construction Program.

Lever said that during this year's bid for state funding, many smaller school systems requested millions more than usual, leaving less cash for larger jurisdictions.

Advocates for the city school system think its facilities needs are long overdue. A state task force said it would cost $500,000 million to make city schools adequate by state standards.

At Lake Clifton

A year ago, Lake Clifton was racked by mechanical and structural problems. In addition to roofing and heating issues, the school was built on top of a lake that had been filled in, and school officials said it seemed the building was slowly sinking.

One school official guessed that it would cost tens of millions to fix that one school.

This spring, a leak caused pieces of the auditorium ceiling to collapse at City College, one of the system's best schools.

In her classroom at William Paca Elementary last week, technology teacher Karin McCarthy wore a polar fleece jacket - one she normally wears while ice climbing. The conditions were strikingly different the previous week.

"It was 89 in here," she said.

Such problems are frustrating to local leaders.

"A lot of the facilities are completely outdated," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who last month toured Samuel Coleridge Taylor on West Preston Street - believed to be the system's oldest building - and was astonished by the stench in the library.

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