Old schools fall into disrepair Spending priority is on new facilities


Betsy Fleischmann makes it a point to listen to the weather forecast. If rain threatens, she covers her desk with plastic in Room 205 at Hickory Elementary School.

That way she can protect her desk and teaching materials from water spilling from the leaky roof.

In April, rainwater spilled down the front wall of the classroom and over the chalkboard, destroying books and posters. The teacher had bought three of the books with her own money to teach students about American history.

"The roof has been patched many times, but the water always seems to find another way to get in and you never know where that will be," said Fleischmann, who has taught 24 years at Hickory. "You do what you have to do and keep going."

Hickory Elementary will get a new roof in the new fiscal year that starts July 1, thanks to $2.3 million allocated to fix deteriorating roofs at 15 of the county's 44 schools, said George Lisby, school board president.

But roofs aren't the only infrastructure problem facing the county's older schools, elected officials and school board members say.

Some of the county's older schools need numerous renovations -- from new electrical wiring and lighting to plumbing and windows -- while others need more space.

And at some older schools, administrators want improved facilities, such as space for art classes to bring the schools up to par with new schools.

While infrastructure and maintenance needs at some of the county's older public schools are pressing, the county has passed on addressing some of the needs because money has been needed to build new schools for a growing student population.

About five years ago there were 28,000 students in public schools. Today, there are nearly 33,000 school-age residents, and that number is expected to grow to 42,000 by 1997.

"There has not been a sufficient amount of dollars put in the budget [for maintainance] for about eight or 10 years," Lisby said.

Harford school Superintendent Ray R. Keech says the priority has had to be on building new schools because of the boom in students.

"We can't continue to build new schools at the expense of allowing existing schools to deteriorate," said County Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C.

Pierno said the county should consider pressing the state for more money to help pay for school repairs and renovations and consider local avenues to raise money.

As for local options, Pierno says the county should consider further increasing the county's property transfer tax or requiring land developers to contribute to school maintainance costs.

Keech said he doesn't know how much money it would take to upgrade the older schools but thinks the figure would be "horrendous."

For example, it is expected to cost $400,000 to renovate about 10 classrooms in the oldest section of Halls Cross Roads Elementary School in Aberdeen, said Albert Seymour, a spokesman for the county schools. The renovation will include ,, plumbing, electricity, heating, air conditioning, windows and ceilings.

Keech said he understands why teachers and parents are frustrated about the condition of older schools. But new schools are the priority because of the growing student population.

"People see a brand new school and they say, 'Wait a minute, we want our fair share.' And they've got a point. But where do we put the kids who are coming into this county who don't have a school?" he said.

But parents of children in older schools and teachers assigned to them are growing frustrated.

Roxanne Woodyard, who will be Hickory Elementary's Parent Teacher Association president in September, said, "We understand there is a need for new schools, but we also feel there are needs at Hickory that need to be addressed to keep the school from deteriorating."

Half of the classrooms have roof leaks at Hickory Elementary, said Assistant Principal Susan A. Osborne.

Touring the 40-year-old building with Pierno recently, Osborn pointed out missing acoustical tiles in the ceiling, destroyed by leaks. On rainy days, buckets are placed throughout the building.

During downpours, Osborn said she routinely prods soggy acoustical tiles with a broom handle to release trapped water.

"I'm worried the water will collapse the tiles on a child's head," she said.

Built in 1951, Hickory will get a new roof this fiscal year, which begins July 1, as well as new lighting for hallways.

At Churchville Elementary School, where one part of the school dates to the 1930s, Principal James H. Lewis III complains about leaking roofs, too. He said the gymnasium is useless when it rains hard.

"During a heavy downpour, you've got water coming in here to beat the band," he said.

Other problems range from termites to well contamination.

Roofing woes aren't the only problems at older schools.

Last fall, Hickory Elementary shut down water fountains and used bottled water for drinking and preparing school meals. The school will be hooked into city water this year.

And, Churchville Elementary was hit with two "nuisance swarms" of termites this year, said Assistant Principal Martha D. Davis. One of the swarms occurred in her office in early March, when termites came up out of cracks in the floorboards.

"I opened the door and saw termites in the air and shut the door and called maintainance," she said.

In early April, exterminators killed the termites.

While maintenance needs are the priority for most older schools, administrators at several say they need more space to bring them up to par with newer schools.

Schools like Norrisville Elementary, which turned 25 this year, were built before computer resources or reading rooms were considered necessary teaching aids. Such things are now routinely included in new schools.

Principal Margaret D. Goodson said, "I would like to see children, facility-wise, get equal treatment."

The school needs an addition, Goodson said. What she got this year is a portable classroom for one third-grade class. The classroom will be for other classes, such as reading.

The guidance counselor will move to the library workroom. Her desk is located at the rear of the auditorium stage. Even with rearranging, problems remain. Computers line the back of the music room, and there is no separate space for a speech therapist.

Norrisville students get their "art on a cart" instead of in a separate room. The art teacher, which Norrisville shares with another elementary school, pushes art supplies on a cart between classrooms.

Said Pierno, "When you use a portable classroom that is exactly what you get -- a classroom. So you are increasing the number of students at a school, but you're not increasing the cafeteria, library or other services a school needs."

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