Red tape wraps school in heat Electric fans sit idle as parents, teachers go through channels


Parents at Joppa View Elementary thought they were following simple PTA logic. When you have a problem -- no air conditioning and a very hot school -- you raise some money, and buy some fans.

Then they ran headlong into the Baltimore County school bureaucracy and its rules against that kind of thing.

So instead of humming and cooling, the 35 fans, purchased for $38.29 apiece, have been sitting in boxes in a school storage room -- for 16 months.

"Our goal is really quite simple. Put the fans in. Let's move some air around," says John Burke, the former PTA treasurer in charge of the fan acquisition.

"The frustrating thing is not being able to get explanations or logical reasoning. It's been done in other schools. We're not forging any new ground here."

Today, there are signs of progress. Facilities officials who took over the beleaguered department in the spring and found out about the fan flap a few weeks ago, say they'll probably install the fans, as long as the school pays the bill, estimated at $7,000 to $8,750.

Just in time for fall.

Meanwhile, Joppa View students and teachers have sweltered through a second summer since the fans arrived in May 1995.

"It's been hideous," says Susan G. Roeder, a first-grade teacher. "Neither I or the kids want to work after lunch in the humidity. Of course, we do the best we can, but when you're feeling so miserable that's what you're thinking about, not the learning."

Teachers weren't about to wait for the wheels of government to turn. Most brought in their own portable fans to cool the rooms -- but shhhh that's not allowed either, for safety reasons.

The 1 1/2 -year fan story might appear to be a tale of red tape, but it also offers a glimpse into the complexities of controlling a 160-school building program.

Former Superintendent Stuart D. Berger, who was ousted from the district more than a year ago, encouraged each school to manage itself, to buy supplies and hire contractors with school funds, without wading through the mammoth bureaucracy.

That "entrepreneurial" method accelerated many improvements. But it also led to purchases that couldn't be handled by a school's electrical system, and overwhelmed the district's maintenance staff with requests for electrical upgrades and installation for equipment, from computer labs to audiovisual gadgetry.

So facilities officials began enforcing a policy that required purchases of heating, ventilation and cooling equipment to be approved through the central office.

That led, at least partly, to the fan holdup at Joppa View.

The 7-year-old Perry Hall school, a one-story brick structure, sits on a treeless plain, soaking up sunlight. Small windows limit the breeze and make the classrooms especially hot in 90-plus weather, except in a newer, air-conditioned wing.

Teachers and students have complained of headaches and other ailments during severe heat, and in past years some children were sent home because of it, says Roeder, the school's representative for the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "I've had kids actually fall asleep in class in the heat," she says.

In 1994, the PTA decided that one of the best gifts it could give was cool air, and raised money by selling books, candy, gift-wrap and T-shirts.

The parents did their homework: They got the make and model number of fans installed in other county schools, including nearby Seven Oaks Elementary, a structural replica of Joppa View. And from the W. W. Grainger Co., the parents bought the 16-inch oscillating wall fans -- one for each classroom and four for the cafeteria.

Then they asked the maintenance department to install them.

"That's kind of where it came to a stop," Burke says.

Precisely why, no one seems to know; the facilities department is run by an almost entirely new crew these days, its former management swept out in the spring after air quality problems closed Deer Park Elementary School and departmental audits found widespread mismanagement.

Principal Darla D. Evans says the school didn't know it needed approval before buying such equipment. "We purchased them without prior authorization. That was our mistake."

Then, facilities workers got tied up with Deer Park's problems. "We weren't a real priority," Evans says, adding that she is getting cooperation from new facilities Director Gene L. Neff.

A maintenance official examined the building last fall and told Burke that an engineering study was needed to check for a design flaw. If the school were designed correctly, Burke was told, it wouldn't need the fans. Burke was asked to send letters from teachers and parents, which he did, but says he never got a response.

"It's unbelievable. There's a high level of frustration on the fan issue," Burke says. He looks at other schools -- Seven Oaks and Kingsville -- that got the county to install the same fans, and can't understand why Joppa View is different.

Seven Oaks bought its fans out of the school's budget -- with prior approval -- and the district's maintenance staff installed them, which mostly involved raising outlets so children couldn't hurt themselves touching the cords.

Kingsville Elementary bought the fans out of its budget two years ago, and they too were installed by district workers, says Principal Rodney Obaker.

"I don't recall getting the purchase approved," he says. "That was back in the days of Berger -- go ahead and do it."

New facilities officials are trying to develop a balanced policy. They want to be flexible but also to discourage purchases that might violate safety codes or require expensive upgrades.

"The worst thing is when they go ahead and do things and don't say anything to us," Neff says. "They might buy floor fans and go ahead and install them and we're left with a situation where we don't allow those things as a matter of safety."

But with one-third of the county's 160 schools lacking air conditioning, fan controversies are as likely to reappear as Baltimore's muggy haze.

Acting maintenance manager Barry K. Pickelsimer says his department is writing specifications to tell schools what type of fans to buy. Schools can buy them as long as they get prior approval, pay installation and maintenance costs, and have the proper electrical service in place.

Meanwhile, at Joppa View, two years after it set out to buy fans, the PTA has another quest.

"To get the fans installed," says president Peggy Passaro. "That's our goal."

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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