School systems around state need to address improvements to buildings

With schools opening in the next week, Baltimore County has overcrowding problem as well

  • Workers move glass outside the new Carver Center for Arts and Technology, which is slated to open in 2012.
Workers move glass outside the new Carver Center for Arts and… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
August 22, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Rodgers Forge Elementary had reached nearly double its capacity, so parents and students were relieved last year when the new $22 million WestTowson Elementary opened to ease crowding at neighboring schools in Baltimore County.

One year later, West Towson has enrolled 50 more students than it was built to handle, and it doesn't have enough land for a trailer.

As schools around the Baltimore region prepare to open in the next week, many are confronting growing enrollments and aging school buildings that need billions of dollars of improvements at a time when the state and localities grapple with tight budgets.

Baltimore County estimates it would have to spend $2.2 billion to modernize its school buildings, according to the most recent estimates, and that doesn't include the cost of any new schools. In the city, the need has been tallied at $2.8 billion — a statistic that civil rights activists have used to decry what they call deplorable conditions. Anne Arundel County has identified $1.9 billion in needed updates to school infrastructure and Howard County has a list of $500 million in projects.

While the large Baltimore-area school systems are in the worst shape, the need across Maryland is so great that state officials are beginning to investigate alternative financing arrangements that would give local governments large infusions of capital to build and renovate schools in a short period, said David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program.

The new arrangements, which have been used successfully in Great Britain and Canada, rely on private financing, he said. The possibility also exists, he said, for local governments to work together on getting schools repaired and upgraded.

Lever said the state estimates that nearly $6 billion is needed to upgrade Maryland schools to the bare minimum of standards. Under those standards, for instance, a large high school would not be required to have an auditorium. The localities have different building plans.

"We have made some gains over the past 11 years; however, the volume of projects creates an enormous hurdle in the path of funding," Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in an email. "We are constantly looking for options and monitoring our revenue projections along with the economy."

Anne Arundel, which opens schools on Tuesday, has a list of projects it hopes to complete in the next several years, including replacing Severna Park High School and replacing or renovating six elementary schools. Howard is proceeding with renovations at Mount Hebron High School and other schools.

Other localites have smaller needs. Carroll County, for instance, hasn't seen its enrollment increase. Bill Caine, a facilities planner, said the county needs about $233 million to renovate and build new schools. It is currently replacing Mount Airy Middle School, at a cost of $3 million.

Many of the schools in the state were constructed during the baby boom of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Lever said, many districts put up buildings inexpensively and quickly, believing enrollments would eventually decline and that many of the schools would be closed within decades. Windows and mechanical systems were particularly poor, he said.

But after a slight decline in enrollment, the student population is beginning to climb again, particularly in Baltimore County where the number of students in all elementary schools will exceed the number of seats available by 2014. Eight elementary schools already have 20 percent more students than they should, as of last September.

The crowding is concentrated in the York Road corridor and the northwest parts of the county, which will each need at least one new elementary school in the next five years, according to Michael Sines, head of Baltimore County school facilities.

Phi Delta Kappa International, a nonprofit group that analyzes school systems, audited Baltimore County in 2007 and reported facilities were so deteriorated that the situation interfered with learning. The team of auditors looked at 157 schools and found a significant number in poor condition.

Sines acknowledged that some of the deterioration came about because the system wasn't spending money on maintenance. However, he pointed out that the county has spent $1 billion in the past decade to renovate and step up maintenance of its buildings. The system is building two new high schools, Carver Center for Arts & Technology and Dundalk/Sollers Point, and renovating two others, Milford Mill and Parkville.

"The physical facilities in Baltimore County are not in a crisis predicament," Sines said. With a continued commitment of capital for maintenance and renovation, he said, "This school system is on a good course."

But that view is not shared by some Baltimore County parents, who note a variety of deficiencies and have agitated for the county to build new schools and renovate others more quickly.

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