Schools' building estimates too low New cost projections rearrange priorities for Baltimore County


The discovery that costs for Baltimore County school construction projects had been underestimated by $31 million was the catalyst for an extensive shift this week in the building plans and a new emphasis on classroom space to forestall high school crowding.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said yesterday that the mistakes prompted him to transfer $23 million from other proposed capital projects and to shift millions more already earmarked for schools to create 3,000 new high school seats over the next six years.

A frenzied review of construction estimates in recent weeks was sparked, he said, by the troubles at Deer Park Elementary, where problems in the air-handling system forced the school's closing and helped uncover widespread mismanagement in construction and maintenance practices.

County officials said they found a plan wildly out of touch with real costs, and a school board-approved strategy that wrongly emphasized expensive high school renovations as much as projects that would add badly needed classroom space.

The changes -- submitted to the County Council Monday night and approved to meet a deadline for getting construction loans on the general election ballot -- will mean the cancellation of some projects, including a major renovation of Kenwood High, but the addition of others, such as a $33 million New Town High School to be built in Owings Mills.

"It came as a complete shock to me that they finally opened their eyes," said Abby Beytin, a county teacher who is the PTA president at Owings Mills High School -- built in 1978 and still the newest high school in the county.

A recent study projected severe crowding in the northwestern ++ section of the county, and much of the record capital spending proposed for the schools will address it. The projects include $11.2 million additions for Pikesville High School and Franklin High in Reisterstown.

Parkville High Principal Jacqueline Tipkin expressed delight at learning her school also will get an $11.2 million addition -- a project not previously planned.

"This is great news; we are thrilled," she said, noting projections that Parkville's enrollment will grow to 30 percent over capacity in the next three years.

But Kenwood High Assistant Principal Jean C. Walker was saddened at the loss of a much-anticipated $20 million overhaul -- for the second time in five years.

"It's a real shame," she said, adding that the school's electrical system is so outmoded it won't accommodate new computers, the heating system "is on its last legs," and windows are so old that most won't open.

In another change, Catonsville High School's planned $16.5 million renovation was scaled back to $4 million -- with the $12.5 million difference to be used for a 600-seat addition there.

Questions of fairness

Marita J. Cush, a Catonsville High School parent who is president of the Catonsville Community Conservation Association, said she was "infuriated" by the situation and saw the late changes in plans as unfairly ignoring older communities in favor of newer, wealthier ones.

"The lighting in the hallways might as well be nonexistent, it's so dark," she said of the local high school. "The heating system is so bad in the winter that in one classroom you have to keep the windows open and in another part of the building you have to keep your coat on. It needs all its systemic supports redone."

Her ire was exacerbated by the association's long battle to have the former Catonsville Middle School on Bloomsbury Avenue renovated -- a project rejected on the basis of cost estimates in a system she saw as discredited yesterday.

Ruppersberger said yesterday, however, that the new estimates show that the Bloomsbury building's overhaul would cost twice as much as the $9.5 million cost of building Southwest Elementary instead.

'Golden faucets'

During Monday night's lengthy council session, anger erupted at unnamed former school construction officials deemed responsible for the low estimates, from state legislators upset at losing projects dear to their hearts.

Democrat Michael J. Collins, the county's Senate delegation chairman, criticized the "blazing" incompetence that brought cancellation of the overhaul at the 1955-vintage Kenwood High, where he was a teacher for 30 years.

Perry Hall's Democratic Councilman Vincent J. Gardina wondered aloud whether "golden faucets and platinum hallways" were planned for school projects in his district that have run $3 million over budget.

Gene L. Neff, the former county public works director hired earlier this year to take over school construction, told astonished council members that the old estimates were off by as much as $4.8 million on one project -- an addition at Perry Hall High School -- and were made without using even the most basic professional tools, such as a formula allowing for inflation.

Faulty design process

Neff and schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione said the design process also was faulty, because costly features were often added without regard for costs while work was under way.

Projects badly underestimated also include a Perry Hall Middle School addition, off by $3.1 million; a new Edgemere Elementary, off by $3 million; a new Martin Boulevard Elementary, off by $3.1 million; the new Southwest Elementary, off by $3.1 million; a Towson High renovation, off by $1 million; and a replacement for the burned-down Sparks Elementary, $3.3 million.

The costs for additions at Dulaney, Franklin and Pikesville highs were underestimated by a combined $10 million -- but officials said some of that was due to a decision in the revised construction plan to increase their size from 500 seats to 600.

Collins and Gardina said Ruppersberger told them money will be spent for improvements that will help classroom activities at NTC Kenwood High, and county planning money for a new Martin Boulevard Elementary school could be restored to keep that project on track.

But all of the plans are contingent on voter approval Nov. 5 of a record county bond issue for school construction over the next two years -- $89.6 million -- with an expected $32 million in state money and $8 million in cash that Ruppersberger said would be added by the county.

It was Neff's review of each scheduled project over the past two months that resulted in the re-examination of enrollment figures, and the decision to scrap several long-awaited renovation projects in favor of new additions and the new high school, Ruppersberger said.

Marchione said he is studying other remedies for crowding, such as longer school days to allow student attendance on double shifts, three-year high school programs or relocation of whole grades to underused buildings.

Pub Date: 8/07/96

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