Aging schools a concern

Mount Hebron upgrade plan called inadequate as other needs loom

March 11, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

With a controversial facilities upgrade to Mount Hebron High School looming, the Howard County Board of Education is evaluating the physical needs of its other older schools.

Some Mount Hebron parents have been vocal in their opposition to a $49.8 million plan that would include mechanical upgrades, full systemic renovations and an expansion of the school's art, athletic and administrative offices.

Many parents say they want a completely new school, some want plumbing, sewage and rodent problems addressed, and others want the school system to further investigate other alternatives.

Mount Hebron staff members recently sent a letter detailing their concerns to County Executive Ken Ulman and County Council members.

The letter, which is signed by 99 employees, addresses a number of facility-related problems at the school, and it also lists problems that - according to the letter - will not be addressed by the system's plan, known as the 2B option.

The letter lists 21 problems that might persist after the completion of the renovation, including unsafe and narrow hallways in instruction areas, asbestos, mold and inadequate plumbing.

"We believe that the 2B option is not the best use of taxpayers' money," the letter says. "While a new building is initially more costly, it is economically a better long-term investment since it will provide a building positioned for the future."

Ulman toured Mount Hebron on Tuesday and met with parents.

"Clearly there are some significant, legitimate needs," Ulman said. "I think the school system knows that. ... I'm open to ideas and suggestions."

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said that the most important factor at any school is the ability to deliver curriculum.

"We need to think about the programs," Cousin said. "If the programs can't be delivered, then we need to look at the facility."

Ken Roey, the system's executive director of facilities and management, informed the Board of Education that he planned to send a letter this week to the Mount Hebron community that will address many of the concerns raised by teachers, parents and students.

In addition, Roey said, the school system is in the process of reviewing a staff survey that raised 200 maintenance-related concerns at the school.

Roey said that he walked through the school Tuesday and observed two "isolated" cases of mold in ceiling tiles and saw one dead rat.

He said the mold was linked to a leak in the roof. He also said the school did not have an active rodent infestation problem.

Diane Mikulis, the school board chairman, has been miffed by the outcry at Mount Hebron, in particular the request to demolish and replace the entire facility.

Mikulis referred to complaints that resulted in the school receiving a renovated auditorium in 2004.

"Because of that [outcry], they got an auditorium," she said. "Now they want to tear it down?"

Almost every board member has visited Mount Hebron in recent months to observe the facility, according to Mikulis. School board members are scheduled to approve a construction plan for Mount Hebron at their March 22 meeting.

"It is hard to address one school when you don't know what is happening at other schools," Mikulis said during a meeting Thursday.

While Mount Hebron has dominated discussions about school system renovation projects, many warn that there are several other schools in the same predicament.

Mount Hebron is one of four schools - along with Atholton, Centennial, and Hammond - whose maintenance conditions will be assessed by an architectural firm. The conditions of those schools, which are among the oldest in the system, will be ranked and prioritized by May.

A physical survey of all Howard County schools has been talked about for years but has gone unfunded. Last year, a $500,000 survey was completed that measured the equity of some school facilities. In the proposed 2008 operating budget, $1.5 million has been requested to survey the entire school system.

That survey has been urged by board members and central office administrators.

In 2010, the average age of all buildings in the school system will be 27 years old, and 20 schools will be 40 years or older, according to Roey.

Board member Sandra H. French agreed that all school facilities should meet similar standards.

"I think this board [should] have a conversation [about] equity with our high schools," French said. "Somehow we need to develop an equitable midline."

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