Cindy Ardinger first decided she needed to speak up about the condition of Mount Hebron High School before her daughter took a single class there. Walking the halls with her then-eighth-grader, Alex, she couldn't help but notice the cracked tiles, the water stains on the ceiling and other problems.
"It was very evident as soon as you walked into the building that it was in disrepair," Ardinger said.
As Alex began her freshman year, Ardinger took on an assignment of her own, forming a group called Help Mount Hebron in 2004 with the goal of alerting school officials to the problems.
The group, which consisted of parents, teachers, students and others, made a video that showed the school's problems, complete with footage of rodents and sewage. The video was shown to the Board of Education and even appeared on the Today show in 2005.
Ardinger thought her work was done. "We thought we could walk in there, show the video, and the school system would take over from there," she said. But now, Alex is starting her freshman year in college, and the high school, built in 1964, still has not been improved.
Help Mount Hebron, a committee of the school's PTSA, is stronger than ever, and its members are getting frustrated. The group counts parents from throughout the county as members and has an e-mail list of hundreds of people. It has actively recruited representatives from schools that will feed into the high school.
Principal David Brown said Help Mount Hebron is the strongest parent group he's encountered in his 12 years in the Howard County school system and 18 years in other systems before that.
"I've never worked with a more active and motivated parent group in my career than this committee," he said. "Its leadership is very vested in the school."
Brown, who was assistant principal at River Hill before taking the helm of Mount Hebron a year ago, said there's no doubt Mount Hebron lacks the amenities of the newer school.
"We're all working on a solution to bring the facilities to where they are more comparable," he said.
On Wednesday, about 15 people, including parents from elementary and middle schools and Mount Hebron teachers, met in the school's media center to talk about what they'll do next.
"I've been reading articles and reports, and I'm concerned," said parent Vicki Imre, whose eldest child is in fourth grade at Hollifield Station Elementary School.
The meeting lasted nearly three hours and ended with members saying they want safety and code violations eliminated and the school brought up to the standards of other high schools in the county, said Linda Dombrowski, co-chairwoman of the group.
Members of the group will attend a Board of Education meeting on the school budget Thursday, and then a Sept. 20 meeting that's open to public comments on the proposed budget. But some are annoyed that the Sept. 20 meeting conflicts with Mount Hebron's back-to-school night.
Dombrowski, who joined the group in January and has a sophomore at Mount Hebron, says Help Mount Hebron is not demanding a new school. Instead, the group wants officials to examine all the options and choose the best one, she said. If they can show that renovations are the most cost-effective solution, so be it.
At this point, Dombrowski said, she just hopes that Mount Hebron will be renovated or rebuilt by the time her fifth-grader, Cheryl, attends. "I'm hoping the Class of 2015 has something to show for it," she said.
More importantly, she would like to see a system in place for evaluating other aging schools so the county can renovate and replace them as needed, without a fight from parents.
Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said such a plan already exists for schools that are no longer able to meet their educational goals. But Mount Hebron is not at that point and is not overcrowded, he said.
"When the program can no longer be delivered in the school, then it's time for a new school or replacement," he said. "Mostly, it's about the program."
Cousin said he has been meeting with members of Help Mount Hebron. "They've done their homework, they're articulate and well-prepared when we meet," he said. But that's to be expected, he added.
"This is Howard County, and it's anticipated that people are going to be advocates for their schools and their kids. This is nothing unusual."
He said: "We have the same goals. Our approach to meeting those goals may be different, but I'm still in a collaborative state of mind."
The problem, as members of Help Mount Hebron see it, is that school officials don't seem to be acting in a systematic way. Instead, they seem willing to spend millions of dollars to fix immediate problems when it might be cheaper and better in the long run to build a new school.
"The solutions they've put forth are piecemeal," Dombrowski said.
The plan currently on the table calls for spending $50 million for improvements to Mount Hebron that include a new heating and air-conditioning system and some fire-safety changes. But all that money and work won't change the fundamental problems of the building, members of the group say.
The group has seized upon an April 2006 report on Mount Hebron, commissioned by the school system, that states "the proposed scope of work for this project is quite extensive," and that even after it is complete, "the majority of the structural portion of the building will be approaching forty years old."
The report says that "rebuilding portions of the building or even rebuilding the entire building should be seriously considered."
The group also created its own facility appraisal, using the same criteria as the school system and relying on volunteers like Stephen Lucchesi, a professional engineer, and Joe Rutter, a professional planner.
Both Ardinger, a lawyer, and Dombrowski, who has a master's degree in public policy and worked as a government budget analyst in Virginia, have long histories of community and PTA involvement. But the Mount Hebron fight is more work than they expected, they said.
"I didn't expect this to be so involved," Ardinger said. "I'm not receiving a paycheck. I didn't run for office."
Both mothers say they hope their children learn from the example they are setting. The lesson they want to impart is the value of working to make things better.
They hope their children don't walk away with the idea that you can't fight City Hall.