Schools await needed re­pairs

Lack of air con­di­tion­ing has been hot topic, but leaks, rust­ing pipes per­sist

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Talia Rich­man

Fed­eral Hill Prepara­tory Prin­ci­pal Sara Long says she’s grate­ful that when her school’s 43-year-old roof leaks, the dam­age is mostly in the stair­wells and hall­ways.

If there’s heavy rain and wind, tiles fall down. Big puddles form. Bits of the au­di­to­rium ceil­ing crum­ble to the floor.

Her con­cern, she says, is the day when “sud­denly it’s hap­pen­ing in a class­room.” As the lack of air con­di­tion­ing in many Bal­ti­more pub­lic schools gar­nered re­cent me­dia at­ten­tion and fin­ger-point­ing from the gov­er­nor and oth­ers, the school sys­tem’s other main­te­nance needs — which af­fect teach­ers and stu­dents year-round — gen­er­ate less out­rage.

There are aging roofs, rusted pipes, crack­ing steps and bro­ken el­e­va­tors — all pil­ing up to a mas­sive main­te­nance back­log that has swollen to nearly $3 bil­lion. That’s more than dou­ble the dis­trict’s an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get.

“We do have the old­est school build­ings in the state of Mary­land. That can’t change from a quip or from a magic wand,” says city schools CEO Sonja San­telises. Ad­dress­ing the back­log in re­pairs, she says, is “not go­ing to hap­pen


It’s be­come a back-to-school tra­di­tion for politi­cians and com­mu­nity mem­bers to de­cry the lack of ad­e­quate air con­di­tion­ing in Bal­ti­more class­rooms. The con­di­tions, which forced dozens of schools to close early dur­ing the sweaty first days of the school year, led Gov. Larry Ho­gan and Mary­land Comptroller Peter Fran­chot to de­mand that all city schools be out­fit­ted with AC in the next few years. That’s meant fund­ing for air con­di­tion­ing has taken prece­dence over other press­ing projects.

The Bal­ti­more school board ap­proved a re­port this month that lays out the city’s com­plex needs. The 2018-2019 Com­pre­hen­sive Main­te­nance Plan is clear: Af­ter decades of un­der­in­vest­ment, the city school sys­tem needs a dra­matic in­fu­sion of money be­fore its school build­ings have a chance at be­ing up to par.

A re­port re­leased in 2012 found the city needed an es­ti­mated $2.4 bil­lion to re­place or ren­o­vate its ex­ist­ing build­ings. That trig­gered the cre­ation of a $1 bil­lion ini­tia­tive, the 21st Cen­tury School Build­ings Pro­gram, which will even­tu­ally re­build or ren­o­vate up to 28 schools — nearly 20 per­cent of the dis­trict’s 165 build­ings. Nine state-of-the-art schools have opened so far.

But at the many schools not cho­sen for the pro­gram, de­ferred main­te­nance costs con­tinue to com­pound.

Chil­dren in most Bal­ti­more schools still rely on bot­tled wa­ter, more than a decade af­ter rev­e­la­tions about lead con­tam­i­na­tion. Many schools have to hold ex­tra fire drills be­cause their build­ings aren’t fully cov­ered by au­to­matic sprin­kler sys­tems. Pipes burst, roofs leak and win­dows break — and dis­trict of­fi­cials find ways to pri­or­i­tize the needs with lim­ited dol­lars.

State-com­mis­sioned re­ports have found Bal­ti­more schools op­er­ate with hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars a year less than what is needed to ed­u­cate stu­dents.

Ac­cord­ing to a for­mula used by fa­cil­ity man­age­ment pro­fes­sion­als, the dis­trict should be spend­ing about $150 mil­lion a year just on build­ing main­te­nance. But the dis­trict’s op­er­at­ing bud­get for main­te­nance and op­er­a­tions is about $23 mil­lion for this fis­cal year, ac­cord­ing to dis­trict doc­u­ments.

“We con­tin­u­ally look for dif­fer­ent ways to change struc­tures and pro­ce­dures to be more ef­fi­cient in our work,” said Lynette Wash­ing­ton, the dis­trict’s in­terim chief op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer, “but there’s only so much we can do with very lim­ited re­sources.”

Be­yond main­te­nance fund­ing, the dis­trict has also re­ceived, on av­er­age, $47 mil­lion a year over the past decade to­ward re­place­ment of aging build­ings and an­ti­quated sys­tems. The ma­jor­ity comes from the state.

“Un­der the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, the state has pro­vided more fund­ing for school con­struc­tion and main­te­nance projects to Bal­ti­more City than any other ju­ris­dic­tion,” the gov­er­nor’s spokes­woman, Amelia Chasse, said in a state­ment. “The gov­er­nor will con­tinue to make his­toric in­vest­ments to en­sure that our stu­dents are able to learn in a safe and healthy en­vi­ron­ment, while push­ing for in­creased ac­count­abil­ity and fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity from North Av­enue.”

Mayor Cather­ine Pugh’s lat­est bud­get in­cludes $19 mil­lion for school cap­i­tal projects. That’s an in­crease of $2 mil­lion over pre­vi­ous years, a move spurred by highly pub­li­cized in­ci­dents last win­ter when school heat­ing sys­tems failed across the city.

That ex­tra money, how­ever, does lit­tle to close the gap be­tween what Bal­ti­more spends on school con­struc­tion ver­sus its wealth­ier neigh­bors. Anne Arun­del County, for ex­am­ple, bud­geted more than $180 mil­lion for school con­struc­tion projects last fis­cal year.

Be­tween state and city dol­lars, Bal­ti­more schools of­fi­cials say they can pay for only a hand­ful of ma­jor main­te­nance projects, such as roof re­place­ments, each year. Most schools get the equiv­a­lent of Band-Aids.

“We’re not re­ally touch­ing each of the build­ings,” Wash­ing­ton said. “We’re only ad­dress­ing the most emer­gent needs — roofs where we know we’ve been patch­ing it for so long that it can no longer be patched.”

With the money the dis­trict re­ceives now, Wash­ing­ton said, she sees no way of plow­ing through the sys­tem’s en­tire back­log.

The gov­er­nor’s of­fice has re­peated crit­i­cisms that the city has been fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble in man­ag­ing cap­i­tal im­prove­ment funds. In Jan­uary, af­ter a heat­ing cri­sis left thou­sands of Bal­ti­more chil­dren shiv­er­ing in their class­rooms, The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported that state of­fi­cials had re­scinded tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for build­ing re­pairs af­ter the projects took too long or be­came too ex­pen­sive to com­plete in the des­ig­nated time frame.

A 2015 re­port stated it’s been a “per­sis­tent con­cern” from the In­ter­a­gency Com­mit­tee on School Con­struc­tion that the city school sys­tem “has not man­aged its State-funded cap­i­tal projects at the same level as other Mary­land school sys­tems.”

Dis­trict of­fi­cials counter that the state’s sys­tem of al­lo­cat­ing money long pun­ished poor ju­ris­dic­tions such as Bal­ti­more. Wealth­ier school sys­tems have been able to pay for school re­pairs up­front and then ask the state for re­im­burse­ment later. Bal­ti­more can’t af­ford to do that, lead­ing to prob­lems with re­scinded funds. The state is mak­ing some changes to its fund­ing pro­ce­dures to ad­dress this con­cern.

One way city schools of­fi­cials ap­proach the main­te­nance back­log is through reg­u­lar “blitz cy­cles.” Bal­ti­more schools get vis­its from fa­cil­i­ties staff every six weeks, dur­ing which work­ers can plow through some of the most press­ing work or­ders.

On a re­cent school day, the blitz team vis­ited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ele­men­tary/Mid­dle School in North­west Bal­ti­more, a nearly 50-year-old build­ing with four pages of work or­ders wait­ing.

With the main­te­nance crew present, a teach­ers’ re­stroom faucet broke. Wa­ter rushed out of the bath­room, slowly spread­ing across the hall­way’s green tile.

Prin­ci­pal Rachel Brun­son jumped on her walkie-talkie, re­quest­ing as­sis­tance and some or­ange cones. She tried to help as stu­dents in a third-grade class walk­ing by pressed them­selves close to a wall to avoid the wa­ter. “This is ur­ban ed­u­ca­tion,” Brun­son said. When this type of in­ci­dent oc­curs, she said, her staff does ev­ery­thing it can “to iso­late the ar­eas and not have it im­pact stu­dent learn­ing.”

“These struc­tures are pretty much fall­ing apart,” she said. “But we can’t let that be an ob­sta­cle keep­ing our schol­ars from meet­ing their goals.”

The school is built into the side of a hill, which makes it prone to flood­ing. The gym’s hard­wood floor has started to buckle — cre­at­ing a trip­ping haz­ard for chil­dren.

Wash­ing­ton said the city needs an­other 21st Cen­tury schools project, which could fund more new build­ings for schools like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The ACLU of Mary­land, a driv­ing force be­hind se­cur­ing the ini­tial fund­ing, sees open­ing new build­ings as the most cost­ef­fec­tive way to bring the city’s school in­fra­struc­ture up to date.

The city needs to “con­tinue the pace of open­ings hap­pen­ing now,” said Bebe Verdery, the ACLU’s ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor.

In the mean­time, a state-man­dated push for dis­trict-wide air con­di­tion­ing has shoved other needs down on the list of pri­or­i­ties.

The state Board of Pub­lic Works voted in 2016 to with­hold mil­lions of dol­lars in school con­struc­tion money from the city, along with Bal­ti­more County, un­less of­fi­cials agreed to in­stall air con­di­tion­ing in all class­rooms by the start of the school year. The board later re­in­stated the money af­ter the city pre­sented a plan to cool all of its schools within five years.

When San­telises dis­cussed the plan with state of­fi­cials, she noted that the em­pha­sis on air con­di­tion­ing would have other con­se­quences.

“I also do just want to point out in the spirit of trans­parency that we will be de­fer­ring crit­i­cal projects, like fire safety and roofs, in order to im­ple­ment the AC plan,” San­telises said in Jan­uary 2017.

The city re­cently asked the state for about $1.5 mil­lion for a new roof at Fed­eral Hill Prep, to re­place the one built in 1975. The re­quest was de­ferred. Long doesn’t know whether her school’s re­quest was af­fected by the air-con­di­tion­ing edict.

“I just know we need a new roof,” she said, “and we don’t have one.”



Lance Springs, a mem­ber of a "blitz" re­pair team that vis­its a school and tries to make a num­ber of needed re­pairs, helps a team mem­ber with work at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ele­men­tary/Mid­dle School. The city’s school bud­get hasn’t kept up with needed main­te­nance.

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