City school system examines its space

Buildings to be closed, renovated, constructed

September 16, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Pimlico Middle School is big enough to accommodate 1,818 pupils, but its enrollment is only 659.

The school was built in 1956, and its last major renovation was in 1978. In the cafeteria, a door is off its hinge and rotting, and the ceiling over what the principal thinks was once a snack bar is caving in. It is stifling inside during these first weeks of classes, but the building is so old that the cost of installing air conditioning is prohibitive.

"The kids complain about the heat all day long," Principal Brenda Abrams says. In the winter, cold air will pour through the windows that don't fully close.

These two problems - declining enrollment and old, decrepit buildings - affect scores of schools in Baltimore. Issues for years, they have at last reached the point where school system officials say they must act. The system has 87,000 students enrolled and space for 126,000. And it would cost an estimated $1 billion to fix all the maintenance problems.

In the past, proposals to close schools have run into opposition from parents and neighborhood activists who rally to save them. But over the next seven months, the financially strapped school system will take a hard look at its buildings. By April, officials say, they will have a plan to determine which schools to close, which schools to renovate and where to build new schools over the next decade.

"It's about saying, `What should we look like when we grow up, and how do we get there?'" said Eric T. Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. "We have never taken that comprehensive look, and we're going to."

The system has hired a consulting firm for nearly $1 million. The firm will help community committees to determine the space needs of their neighborhood schools and how schools should be configured to meet modern academic needs. Most notably, the school system is asking the groups to consider converting conventional middle schools to K-8 schools.

As system officials frame the process as an opportunity to think big, they face tremendous pressure from state officials to close schools - and soon. The state is reluctant to continue funding renovation projects until the system figures out which schools it will close, to prevent money from going to waste.

By one state estimate, the system has as much as 5.7 million excess square feet - more than the entire Frederick County school system. Meanwhile, enrollment is expected to continue declining.

David Lever, executive director the state's Public School Construction Program, said the state is looking for an initial batch of schools to be closed for the 2006-2007 school year. He said the school system is wasting at least $10 million a year on unnecessary heating, maintenance and custodial costs, among other factors.

Lever said the state has recommended that the system reduce its capacity by 4 percent a year for three years, which would still leave lots of extra space for innovative school configurations and programs.

Still, even state officials recognize that there is likely a need for new schools. The excess space is not distributed equally throughout the city, and schools in some neighborhoods are crowded. Some buildings are in such disrepair that it would cost less to build new ones.

As the school system converts its large neighborhood high schools into small schools, some buildings "are just these sprawling things that have had addition after addition," Lever said.

Baltimore has the oldest schools in Maryland, with its average building 45.6 years old, according to system figures. About 30 of 171 buildings are more than 75 years old. Fewer than half have air conditioning.

The oldest school, Pimlico Elementary, was built in 1910.

Lever said the state will be more receptive to funding requests from the school system once it has a comprehensive plan, though money for school construction statewide is severely limited. He said that the school system has a history of projects "taking an inordinate amount of time" and that the state has funded some projects that never came to pass.

The school board approved a contract this summer for $973,856 with Ohio-based DeJong & Associates, which has conducted school facilities studies around the country, including in Baltimore County.

The consultant is charged with engaging the community in planning, while keeping that process just centralized enough to stay on schedule, Letsinger said.

In each of eight planning regions, there is a committee that includes parents, students and teachers. The committees began meeting this week, and each region will hold community forums in October and December.

Each committee is charged with producing a report analyzing the needs of the school buildings in the area it's studying, including the community's desired school sizes and grade configurations. The consultants have spent the summer crunching numbers to provide the committees with enrollment trends and projections, information about building conditions and maintenance needs, and building capacity.

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