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As Howard schools’ deferred maintenance price tag surpasses $500M, a bill to help remains up in the air

For the 623 students who attend Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, there are seven toilets total between four girls bathrooms and 13 urinals and six toilets between four boys bathrooms.

“It’s about 45 girls to one toilet and 52 boys to one toilet,” said Lynn Bolenbaugh, an Ellicott City resident who has a seventh grader at the school.

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“I have found that many parents are concerned about [the lack of bathrooms], and I have heard stories about students holding it in all day and then running home to use the restroom,” Bolenbaugh said.

“That is not healthy.”

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Those figures represent the general classroom-area bathrooms available to students daily. It does not include bathrooms in the health room or gym locker rooms. There are no bathrooms in the portable classrooms.

Dunloggin Middle’s bathroom shortage is one of the many deferred maintenance issues within the Howard County Public School System.

Deferred maintenance occurs when there is a lack of money for schools, causing the upkeep of building and equipment projects to be repeatedly delayed and creating a backlog.

As of September, 352 Howard school system projects have been deferred, totaling $545,786,294, according to a list created by Vicky Cutroneo, vice chairwoman of the Board of Education. Projects include but are not limited to: heating/ventilation/air-conditioning systems, plumbing, roofing, construction, carpentry and electrical.

The school system has confirmed that the figures in Cutroneo’s list are accurate.

“It is unconscionable that in Howard County, students and staff are subject to unhealthy, inadequate and outdated school buildings,” Cutroneo wrote with her list, which she shared on Facebook as a public, view-only Google document.

“Deferred maintenance is not just a maintenance issue. It is an environmental health issue. It is an equity issue,” Cutroneo said in an interview.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat who represents District 13, filed a bill to require the school board to address the school system’s deferred maintenance by submitting a report in October to the delegation, county executive and County Council.

“The county has to come up with a solution with dealing with deferred maintenance,” Atterbeary said in a January interview. “I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t be a priority for everyone.”

However, on Wednesday, the day the delegation was scheduled to vote on the bill, no vote occurred. The delegation work session in Annapolis didn’t have a quorum — the minimum number of members that must be present to make proceedings valid — so no bills could be voted on. Five delegates and two senators are required for a quorum, Atterbeary said.

If passed, Atterbeary’s bill would go beyond the requested report, allowing the council to impose an excise tax on any commercial building construction in the county. The revenue would directly address the school system’s deferred maintenance needs.

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The County Council would be able to impose different tax rates on different types of commercial real estate, Atterbeary said.

“Increasing taxes seems like an obvious thing to do,” said Jolene Mosley, a Columbia resident and parent of Oakland Mills Middle and High students.

“Looking for additional revenue is a good thing,” she added.

One of Mosley’s children was experiencing mold sensitivity at Oakland Mills Middle after repeatedly having bloody noses. School administration was responsive to the matter and rectified it.

“The people in the schools working day to day are doing such a good job trying to work with these issues, but the school system needs to put money to projects that need renovations,” Mosley said.

Oakland Mills Middle is projected to have a completed renovation and addition in September 2030, according to the school board’s long-range master plan.

Atterbeary, who has young children who attend Fulton Elementary, filed the bill on behalf of Cutroneo. Howard Board of Education members are allowed to request bills to be filed before the delegation.

“An unhealthy school environment has a direct impact on student performance,” Cutroneo, a former pediatric intensive care and infectious disease nurse, said in an interview

“If a student feels sick in school, [if they feel] foggy, that impacts their learning.”

Inside the schools

Bolenbaugh is part of a group that is trying to work on rectifying the Dunloggin Middle bathroom situation.

“The bathrooms are in old conditions; [they are] decrepit,” she said. “They are unusable. The bathrooms cannot stay in this condition for the next 10 years.”

After walking through all of the bathrooms recently, Bolenbaugh said some ideas to brighten up the facilities include replacing the mirrors and putting on a fresh coat of paint with encouraging quotes on the walls.

“We are trying to think of ways we can improve the building, but at the same time we need to push for a renovation and addition,” she said.

In the school board’s requested fiscal 2021 capital budget, there is a renovation and addition project scheduled for Dunloggin Middle; however, from the previous capital budget, the end date has been pushed back to 2028, four years later than expected.

“We aren’t paying enough attention to the older buildings in making sure they aren’t getting too far behind the times that it would become extremely costly to repair them,” Bolenbaugh said.

Other issues at Dunloggin include a capacity problem and having inadequate space for classrooms. For example, the orchestra practices in the cafeteria, according to Bolenbaugh.

For nearly a decade, a renovation and addition at Hammond High and a new Talbott Springs Elementary — which began as a renovation — have been in the school system’s capital budget to be completed.

As of now, Hammond High is scheduled to be completed in September 2023 and Talbott Springs Elementary is expected to be finished in September 2022.

Both Columbia schools have similar deferred maintenance issues, the biggest ones being mold, inadequate HVAC systems and mice.

“[Mold is] found pretty much at anytime of the year,” said Laurie Ressler, the full-time media specialist at Talbott Springs Elementary.

“It’s an endless cycle; they come and they clean, they come and they clean,” Ressler said.

She sees the effects on her students, from increased coughing to complaints of upper respiratory problems.

Maria Ferraro, a 19-year science teacher at Hammond High, said the school’s roof needs to be fixed to fully remediate its mold issue.

“We have classrooms all over the school where [blackened] ceiling tiles are changed out because of mold and spores,” Ferraro said. “Just replacing [ceiling] tiles doesn’t do anything; they need to fix the roof.”

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Besides the mold, Hammond’s building temperature fluctuates greatly.

“The temperature in the building is a problem. It’s icy cold in some spots and sweating hot in others,” Ferraro said.

The same goes for Talbott Springs.

In the media center, it is “very hard to regulate the heat and cooling,” Ressler said. Sometimes students come to her class completely bundled up, she said.

“You don’t know what to expect. It could be about 55 degrees one day and I’ve taught in the upper 70s,” she said.

Ferraro and Ressler said it can be difficult to keep students engaged in learning when a classroom is either too warm or cold.

Cutroneo’s deferred maintenance list highlights some of the school system’s deferred HVAC projects, including at Talbott Springs Elementary, Dunloggin Middle, Oakland Mills Middle, Oakland Mills High, Jeffers Hills Elementary, Hammond High, Centennial High and Harpers Choice Middle.

At Hammond, the “mice [problem] is crazy,” Ferraro said, recalling a previous infestation in the science storage area.

Besides the storage area, one to two mice were found each day in the science classroom areas at the beginning of the year, Ferraro said.

Ressler has seen mice run along the Talbott Springs library’s shelves and found droppings on desks.

Talbott Springs’ problems are not just maintenance issues, but also health hazards, Ressler said.

“In the Talbott Springs community, we are serving our most vulnerable population. It simply isn’t fair to the children and to the community that needs us the most," she said. “The kids deserve better.”

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