Howard school officials dismiss delegate's claim that Glenwood fire caused by school system negligence

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
Howard Delegation member says Glenwood fire caused by school system negligence

In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan asking for expanded state oversight of Howard County schools, state Del. Warren Miller attributed the cause of a recent fire at Glenwood Middle School to negligence on the part of the county's school system. County and school officials negate this claim.

"I am distraught at the fact that the lives of our children were put at risk due to the apparent neglect of Howard County Public Schools in maintaining this building," wrote Miller, a Republican representing western Howard County.

An initial report from Howard County Fire and Rescue indicates that the Jan. 5 fire, which was contained to the Woodbine school's boiler room, was caused by a "failure of equipment or heat source." The report also states that an electrical failure or malfunction contributed to the ignition. There were no injuries, and students were evacuated to Bushy Park Elementary School.

Miller claims that the fire resulted from an incompatibililty between the school's electrical system and its new $3 million ventilation and air condition system, installed last summer to mitigate humidity and mold growth.

"This system required the contractor to work nights and weekends to assure that the new system be in place for the 2015 school year, which brings us to January 5th of 2016 ... when an electrical fire occurred due to the electrical system never being replaced or upgraded to handle the needs of the new HVAC system," Miller wrote.

But school communications director John White said that no such upgrade was needed because the electrical system "was already adequately sized per the National Electrical Code."

Bob Frances, director of the Howard County permit department, said that new HVAC systems do not usually require electrical upgrades because they are more energy efficient and use less power than old systems.

He also said that various permits obtained by the school system for the installation — including electrical, plumbing and alteration permits —"checked out."

"I wouldn't read it that way," Frances said, "that the electrical system couldn't handle the load of the new HVAC."

Glenwood Middle's principal, Robert Motley, has said in emails to parents that the fire started in BGE's underground wires outside of the school.

"The school system is attempting to recover costs and compensation for associated damages," he said in a note this week.

BGE's communication office would not comment on Miller's claims, but instead issued a statement that said, "According to the Fire Department report, the fire began at the point of interconnection between the school's internal electric equipment and a BGE electric cable. The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation."

Students are slated to return to Glenwood Middle, which has been closed for fire restoration work, on Jan. 25.

"Poor maintenance conditions'

Miller's request for additional oversight by the Maryland Board of Public Works stems from what he says are "poor maintenance conditions" in the Howard County Public School System. But he highlighted issues at Glenwood Middle.

He said that the school system did not follow the recommendation of a 2008 facilities study to replace an electrical substructure there by 2012. The school system's communication director declined to comment on this claim.

And Miller said that mold growth at Glenwood Middle — and several other county schools — has caused health problems.

"During the summer months mold occurred in many classrooms and several teachers were sickened when school resumed," he said in the letter. "There have also been countless reports of mysterious illnesses with students attending classes there."

Last summer the school system acknowledged the presence of mold in the school, and has since hired an industrial hygiene firm to improve indoor air quality there, in addition to installing the new HVAC system. However, school officials have denied a definitive link between mold at the school and student's and teachers' health issues.

Mold can cause nasal congestion, irritated eyes, wheezing and skin rashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with mold allergies or asthma may experience more severe reactions, such as fever, shortness of breath or a lung infection.

"Most people think of Howard County's school system as a place for their children to get a world class education," Miller said in his letter. "I am saddened to report that school maintenance dollars from the State are not being used to keep our school infrastructure safe for students."

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