Sweating over school

Editorial Notebook

August 23, 2008|By Peter Jensen

The heat is on for students returning to the daily grind of classwork next week, and there may be no place in Maryland where that's more true than at Timonium's Ridgely Middle School.

Thanks to a recent $13 million renovation, returning Ridgely students can look forward to new windows, air handlers and lowered ceilings that have turned their school from a somewhat uncomfortable place on hot and humid days to a veritable sauna with no off switch.

Whenever the outside temperatures hit the 80s, Ridgely teachers report, the second floor reliably reaches the 90s and above - could it be any other way with insulated windows that either won't open or can be opened only slightly? Classroom ventilator fans help modestly, but they lack the chillers, that final but deferred-as-of-now touch, that would enable full-fledged cooling.

All of which has gotten some in Baltimore County wondering: Do schools need air conditioning or is that a pricey luxury at a time when money is tight and utility costs are rising sharply?

As Ridgely parents will attest (and in interests of full disclosure, the author is one), air conditioning sure doesn't seem like a luxury when a classroom hits a humid 95 degrees. But as county school officials point out, it probably ought to be when aging schools elsewhere are saddled with more urgent problems such as failing plumbing, leaking roofs and balky heating systems.

Most Baltimore County schools are not fully air conditioned. Many were built 40 to 50 years ago or more when it wasn't common practice. Baltimore city schools are in similar straits, but the generally newer schools in neighboring suburban districts are equipped to stay nice and cool.

Retrofitting older buildings for air conditioning can be an expensive undertaking under the best of circumstances, and while Baltimore County has been spending much more on maintenance in recent years, resources are not unlimited.

There is also something about air conditioning in June and September, the mere cusp of summer, that seems somewhat indulgent. Many of us went through our school years without it and survived just fine. Surely, our sons and daughters are pampered enough.

But Ridgely's case is a little different. The county made its plight worse with the recent decision to reallocate $12 million from the scrubbed Loch Raven High School addition to so-called site improvements - mostly the resurfacing of school parking lots, tennis courts and running tracks. There went Ridgely's $1 million chillers.

In the meantime, Ridgely parents will have to prepare their children for the forecast: mild outside temperatures but subtropical indoor weather. Not by supplying them with water bottles, however; those are banned at the school as a health and safety risk.

But that's another complaint for another day.

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