Clearing schools' clutter could make room for cash

Crews clean out safety-hazard basements while officials look out for items to auction


Walking through the basement at Patterson High School in Southeast Baltimore yesterday was like taking a trip back in time.

Here's a Reading Proficiency Test, 1979 edition. There's the Golden Years of Choral Music for Mixed Voices, copyright 1966, and Secular Choral Music, copyright 1940. And a typewriter table, a metal mop wringer, and a crumbling orange-and-white sign advertising a $1 car wash to benefit the Key Club.

By today, these little pieces of history - and big pieces of clutter - will be gone.

Addressing a decades-long safety hazard and looking for a way to make some extra cash, the Baltimore school system this week teamed up with city government to clean out the basements of 40 schools. All the trash will be recycled. Anything salvageable will be auctioned.

"We're taking proactive measures to clear the clutter," said Thomas A. Palardy, the school system's director of maintenance and inspections. "It's a safety issue. If there was a fire and [firefighters] had to come down and you had this kind of flammable material, it gives them a major hazard."

It's also a financial issue: The school system made $100,000 this summer by clearing out a food services department warehouse and auctioning old lunch trays and other items. The system is working to eliminate the remaining 40 percent of a $58 million deficit by year's end.

School system officials said they expect to hold an auction for the basement goods by the end of the year, though a date has not been set. They are also planning to continue the basement cleanups and auctions until they've reached every school in the city.

Throughout this week, the city Department of Public Works has provided five trucks and 15 workers for each school being cleaned. Crews are consulting principals before hauling off books or files.

Palardy said the most valuable items they've found are the tools from woodshop classes. Around the city, they have also found filmstrips, a phonograph with a Langston Hughes recording and report cards from 1958.

Workers had to wear masks to fend off clouds of dust. At Patterson yesterday, they scrambled to stomp on cockroaches that scattered from beneath the car wash sign when it was picked up.

The cleanup will conclude today, when 130 community volunteers are expected to join city crews to tackle the worst clutter, at Pimlico Middle, Carver Vocational-Technical High, Polytechnic Institute, Western High, Harbor City East and Fairmount-Harford High.

At Poly, school system officials said, there are plans to revive a model train club in a room that's being cleared. A few schools that don't have basements have stored their junk in classrooms and are finding themselves with extra class space.

Much of the clutter is old - often broken - desks, chairs, tables, lights and other fixtures.

The Patterson basement had a water fountain, a urinal, two park benches and three gray lockers. "Here's an auctionable item," Palardy said as he stumbled upon some scaffolding.

He and Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer, examined a wooden device with a fluorescent green cushion and foot straps and debated what it was.

A physical therapy table? A torture device?

"It's a rowing machine," Letsinger said.

"Are you sure of that?" asked Palardy.

"Not at all."

Palardy's next guess: "It's a go-cart." Anyway, he said, "it looks expensive. ... I'm not throwing this out."

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