- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

BALTIMORE — Before school started last week at Yorkwood Elementary, third-grade teacher Karan Engerman said janitors made an effort to clean the dingy walls and floors and straighten the desks.

But she said a summer cleaning can’t fix a building more than 50 years old with no air conditioning and a heating system that sometimes superheats classrooms until they’re unbearable. She said she sometimes spends 25 minutes waiting in line with her students behind other classes because all but one or two of the bathrooms are out of order.

“They keep on telling us to create an inviting environment in our classrooms,” Miss Engerman said. “But when you have a dirty building or an old building … there’s only so much you can do as a teacher.”

Officials say conditions at many of the state’s crumbling school buildings aren’t likely to improve soon as governments struggle to find funds.

“The short-term future is not very bright,” said Mark Smolarz, chief financial officer and head of facilities for Baltimore city public schools.

The amount approved by the state Board of Public Works this fiscal year for public school construction and repairs was about $116.5 million, said David Lever, executive director of Maryland’s Public School Construction Program, which recommends state funding for building projects. School districts had requested a total of $310 million.

He said the state was able to approve 129 projects last year — both new buildings and renovations — out of almost 300 requests.

“It makes it very difficult, because it’s very clear that the needs are tremendous and the funding doesn’t match the needs,” said Mr. Lever, who has visited nearly every district in the state during the last three months. “There are students throughout the state who are in inadequate facilities.”

Mr. Lever said many of Maryland’s crumbling public schools were built during a construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Buildings that were built in previous eras sometimes work against our own educational goals and objectives,” he said.

For instance, Mr. Lever said the state is trying to put up walls in rooms that were designed in the once-popular “open-space pod arrangement,” where four or five teaching stations were placed in a room and separated with movable barriers. He said both teachers and students suffer from the distracting and noisy configuration.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said run-down schools can have problems with allergens, asbestos and mold.

City health officials recently tested students’ blood after some schools were found to have failed to shut down fountains possibly contaminated with lead. Only a handful of students had lead levels that required follow-up, and city officials said it was possible they were exposed to lead at home.

Meanwhile, all schools with suspect fountains have complied with the shutdown order. They’re using bottled water while the fountains are tested to find the source of the lead, Dr. Beilenson said.

Carlton Epps, special assistant to city schools CEO Bonnie Copeland, said fiscal restraints have kept Baltimore from taking better care of its schools.

“Preventative maintenance is one of the things that is often deferred to provide things like books and teachers,” he said.

The system is hiring an engineering firm to evaluate a sample of schools to help assess safety and health issues across the system, Mr. Epps said. The assessment will help administrators set priorities for repairs, he said.

In addition to causing physical problems, Dr. Beilenson said old schools can affect children’s moods.

“The brand new schools are usually brighter, and it does help kids who potentially have seasonal affective disorder,” which can cause depression, sleep disorders or other physical problems, Dr. Beilenson said.

Randy Sovich, a principal of R.M. Sovich Architecture in Baltimore, said architects working on new elementary schools try to view rooms from a child’s perspective, making sure a student can see more than just sky from the windows, and putting display cases in front of classrooms, so children can show off their work — details past builders rarely considered.

Mr. Lever said there are new school projects around the state, including a new middle school in Dorchester County and a new elementary school on Kent Island.

But there are many more schools that need work. In Baltimore, schools requested about $50 million for construction and renovation, but only $12 million was authorized by the state, said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.

“We’re spending all this money in Iraq, and we’ve got children in Baltimore where rain is falling on their heads,” Mr. Cummings said. “The greatest threat to our national security is our failure to educate our children. And these buildings are very important to that education process.”

Mr. Smolarz estimates that 150 of Baltimore’s 180 school buildings need some sort of construction work. He said Baltimore’s share of state construction funds dropped steadily, from an average of $30 million several years ago to $12 million this year.

“Our needs are in the hundreds of millions,” Mr. Smolarz said. “But you can’t do it all in one year.”

Joseph Wilson, principal of Baltimore’s City College, a high school in a 75-year-old building, said the solution lies with Maryland’s residents and lawmakers.

“Frankly, the state and the taxpayers need to step up,” Mr. Wilson said. “The notion that we can provide a high-quality education and a good environment for our students and still cut taxes — that’s silly.”

City College has an antiquated heating system, only a handful of air conditioners and a ventilation system ruined during a renovation in the 1970s.

“If we had a higher quality of climate control, I think kids would do a little better, and this would be a more attractive place to work,” Mr. Wilson said. “But I don’t think it deters from the quality of education.”

Dr. Beilenson agrees, saying a building’s age doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of learning.

“An old school, if it’s well lit, if it’s kept clean, if they have bright lights and exhibits — all those kinds of things make a difference to the general demeanor of the kids,” Dr. Beilenson said.

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