Volunteer effort runs up against the walls


An ambitious effort by volunteers to renovate an elementary school in Jessup has encountered so many delays that construction may not start until next summer, parents were told last night.

More than 100 frustrated parents came to a meeting of the Jessup Improvement Association to find out if the project, which could save the county school system a half-million dollars, will ever become a reality.

After weeks of acrimony between the parents and Anne Arundel County school officials, both sides agreed last night that effort to put up walls closing off open classrooms of Jessup Elementary School must continue.

"The project should have started by now and it didn't," said Gary Mauler, the president of the Jessup Improvement Association, who added that he was appalled by conditions in the school on a recent visit. "I see children concerned about the place where they go to school."

The county Board of Education gave the project its blessing in May, and the volunteers, led by Steve Kendall, had hoped to start closing off classrooms this month, using donated money to pay for materials and contractors to handle the more technical tasks.

But a series of mistakes and misinformation on everything from the number of electrical outlets per wall to a sprinkler plan that did not pass inspection added to the delays.

Mr. Kendall said some contractors pulled out when deadlines passed and some county officials were not helpful in leading the volunteers through the maze of bureaucratic rules and regulations.

"I want to ask the county to give us a person who can help us work within the system to make this project happen," said Rebecca Osborne, the school's PTA president. "We want the process out of the way."

Joe Foster, the vice president of the school board, called the project, which includes a new computer classroom, walls and a sprinkler system, one of the most ambitious ever undertaken by volunteers.

He said the delays "have not been intentionally stalled by some ulterior motive. This is a huge and complex project -- the largest ever undertaken by volunteers in Anne Arundel County."

And while Mr. Kendall is optimistic that the walls can be built during weekends in the spring, Mr. Foster said it is more likely that construction won't start until next summer, which would mean a full year's delay.

"I want you to carry a message back to the board that it is not just Steve Kendall, whose name is in the newspapers, who is frustrated," said John Hammond, whose 5-year-old daughter Laurie will start first grade this fall. "There are hundreds of parents who are just as frustrated."

,.5l The volunteers came to the meeting prepared. They presented letters from students pleading for closed classrooms so they can concentrate better on their lessons and provided parents access to a list of every school board member and their home phone numbers.

Preston Hebron, the school principal, assured parents that their efforts will pay off, saying the PTA membership rose from 100 to 500 in just four years.

"See what you can do when you empower parents," he said. "Should we stop now? It didn't happen when we wanted it to happen, but it will happen. And that's what counts."

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