8 Baltimore City schools closed Monday as new heat, facility problems develop after weekend repairs

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Despite the efforts of dozens of city repair crews and private contractors over the weekend, the city continued to struggle with the deluge of cold weather-related heating and plumbing problems arising in aging Baltimore school buildings.

Monday brought another round of school closures related to failing boilers and frozen pipes. Eight buildings were closed by 10 a.m., just as Gov. Larry Hogan was announcing $2.5 million in emergency state aid for repairs. He called the situation a “horrendous crisis” and again blamed the school system for failing to better maintain its properties.

"Let me be clear, this is not to reward the people responsible who have failed," Hogan said. "This funding is literally about saving kids from freezing in winter and from sweating and being hospitalized during the warm weather."

The Maryland Department of General Service, not the city, will oversee how the emergency funding is spent, the governor said.

The problems with city schools will continue into Tuesday. On Monday night, the system announced a handful of additional school closures. Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School and Pimlico Elementary/Middle School will be closed Tuesday; Calverton Elementary/Middle School is scheduled to remain closed through Wednesday. Students have the option of spending the day at the Easterwood Recreation Center, the district said in a tweet.

Nearly half of the city’s 171 schools experienced heating issues or burst pipes in the days since schools opened last week after the holiday break.

In some schools students bundled up in coats, hats and gloves inside classrooms, scenes that went viral on social media. Unable to keep up with the number of repairs, the school system closed all schools on Thursday because of snow and on Friday because of continued heating problems.

Over the weekend, the crews had fixed problems at all but one of the 20 schools where they worked. But pipes burst in four more schools overnight and then an additional three developed plumbing or heating problems as students were arriving Monday morning.

City and school officials have been unable to estimate how much the emergency repairs are costing. The school system budgets every year for emergency repairs to boilers and pipes, but the scope of the recent problems means there may not be enough in that budget to cover all the costs.

Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said Monday that city school system employees had done a remarkable job over the previous 72 hours working to fix the heating problems.

“I am pleased that with most of this work complete, the governor has decided to be part of the solution,” he said.

Ferguson said that while “anything helps,” a short-term capital infusion won’t fix the long-term problem of failing infrastructure. He said blaming the city for the problem of having to return money to the state because it cannot start projects in time is “like telling a mother on welfare that she’s the problem because she doesn’t maximize her contributions to her 401k.”

Baltimore’s school buildings are in such fragile shape that school workers are taking extraordinary measures to keep the systems operating. Keith Scroggins, the chief operating officer for city schools, said facility managers have worked long hours, seven days a week for the past three weeks trying to make repairs and keep the systems working.

An experienced boiler technician stayed overnight Sunday at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the adjoining Western High School building to keep watch over the flame in the complex’s large complicated heating system, Scroggins said. During extreme cold the surrounding neighborhood can use up most of the gas in underground lines, which can cause the schools’ heating systems to shut down, he said.

At Frederick Douglass High School, there were “double digit” pipes bursting, Scroggins said. At another school, a burst pipe in a classroom shot water out an open window. The water froze into a cascade of ice on the side of the building.

Scroggins doesn’t expect the situation to improve this week as temperatures rebound into the 40s and even 50s. While the buildings may not have as many problems warming up during the day, pipes that are now frozen will begin to burst as the temperature outside rises.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said “hundreds” of city and school system employees and contractors worked long hours over the weekend to try to fix as many schools as possible.

“To deal with 60 schools all being offline at the same time was a tremendous effort,” Pugh said.

She added that she has instructed her Recreation and Parks Department to open recreation centers and provide food in neighborhoods where schools are closed.

She said she wouldn’t know the cost of the emergency repairs until the work is finished. She noted that contractors are on call 24 hours a day for the school system.

Rudy Chow, the city’s director of public works, called the situation evolving.

“The pipes continue to freeze,” he said. “The infrastructure over there is old.”

Lakewood Elementary is a good example of the disruption that the cold is causing.

By 6 a.m. Monday, school facilities workers, with the help of the Department of Public Works, had checked every school to insure each had heat. Lakewood had heat and no problems, said Ann Fullerton, a spokeswoman for the school system. But a short time later, as students were on their way to the school, a pipe burst.

“The work that was done over the weekend was heroic. But subsequently we have problems,” Fullerton said.

Melissa Schober's daughter attends Medfield Heights Elementary School, one of the schools that closed Monday morning.

Schober said the school's principal provided parents with updates about classroom temperatures throughout the morning, but Schober and her husband had less than 30 minutes to come up with a plan to pick up their 9-year-old daughter after the heat stopped working.

"I would prefer, whenever possible, for my child and the 80,000 other Baltimore city children to be in a classroom and learning, but to the extent that heating problems are known, why not just cancel school in the morning so I can make alternative arrangements?" she said. "Having to cross town in the middle of the day is extremely burdensome. ... There are parents out there really sweating bullets about picking up their kid."

City Councilman Zeke Cohen said the conditions in city schools “constitute a crisis of enduring injustice.” He planned to introduce a resolution Monday, calling on city partners to ensure students have access to free meals even when schools are closed.

Cohen’s resolution calls on city partners to codify this commitment and “adjust the school closure food policies to ensure all children have access to meals in the event of school closures.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Michael Dresser and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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