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School buildings show age

The Baltimore Sun

The broken air conditioning that kept Thomas Johnson Elementary closed all week highlights a continuing problem in the Baltimore school system: building parts that were, until recently, neglected for decades.

Until last year, the system did little to take care of its building equipment. The system's 170 school buildings are the oldest in the state and in need of nearly $1 billion just for basic maintenance.

J. Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer, compares the situation with driving a car for several years without an oil change or tuneup.

"At that point, when the car starts breaking down, it's just one thing after another, because you have old parts that have never been dealt with," he said. "We're dealing with very old equipment that hasn't been well maintained until this year. You can't catch up on something like that."

While many city schools have no air conditioning - and were hot during the first week of school - Thomas Johnson does not have windows that open, so it's potentially unsafe without the ventilation. The school opened for a few hours Monday, the first day of the new year, but closed at 11:30 that morning and has been shut ever since.

The school system installed a new cooling tower at Thomas Johnson this summer. But when the tower became operational a few days before school was to start, two parts in the chiller broke. "It just resulted in an overall failure," Scroggins said.

The chiller at the school is 29 years old. "Unfortunately, there wasn't really a lot of maintenance," Scroggins said. "That's why we have so many problems with our equipment."

Over the winter, city schools often need to shut down when heating systems stop working. In February, parents at City College - a prestigious magnet high school - were furious over repeated closures because of lack of heat and a flood in the gymnasium.

A few years ago, the state threatened to cut off money for school construction and renovations in Baltimore if the city didn't start operating more efficiently.

The most highly publicized piece of the state's criteria was that the city close down underused schools: The system had space for 125,000 students, and enrollment was only 85,000.

But a second requirement was that the school system implement a program to maintain building equipment.

One way the system is complying with that requirement is through contracts with energy-savings companies. Dozens of schools, including Thomas Johnson, are receiving energy-efficient upgrades guaranteed to save the school system as much as it spends on the equipment. Thomas Johnson's new cooling tower was part of that project.

Officials said they expect to have the air conditioning fixed and the school ready to open by the end of the Labor Day weekend. They have not decided when students will make up the time they have missed.

The closures have left parents and students frustrated, with some scrambling to arrange child care.

Susan McCusker Borbash said her 7-year-old daughter, Vivian Borbash, couldn't wait to start second grade. Since being sent home Monday, the mother said, Vivian has been "pretty mopey. She's been pretty disappointed and is just wondering when she's going back."

Principal James R. Sasiadek and his staff stuck it out through the heat while school was closed, planning for the new year in rooms where the temperature exceeded 90 degrees.

Sasiadek said the staff is now "really ready" for the new year to begin. "You know how you always say, 'I wish we had one more day'?" he said. "We've gotten a lot of things together. It's given us a chance to get together and do a lot of planning."

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