School systems around state need to address improvements to buildings

Rodgers Forge Elementary had reached nearly double its capacity, so parents and students were relieved last year when the new $22 million WestTowson Elementary opened to ease crowding at neighboring schools in Baltimore County.

One year later, West Towson has enrolled 50 more students than it was built to handle, and it doesn't have enough land for a trailer.

As schools around the Baltimore region prepare to open in the next week, many are confronting growing enrollments and aging school buildings that need billions of dollars of improvements at a time when the state and localities grapple with tight budgets.

Baltimore County estimates it would have to spend $2.2 billion to modernize its school buildings, according to the most recent estimates, and that doesn't include the cost of any new schools. In the city, the need has been tallied at $2.8 billion — a statistic that civil rights activists have used to decry what they call deplorable conditions. Anne Arundel County has identified $1.9 billion in needed updates to school infrastructure and Howard County has a list of $500 million in projects.

While the large Baltimore-area school systems are in the worst shape, the need across Maryland is so great that state officials are beginning to investigate alternative financing arrangements that would give local governments large infusions of capital to build and renovate schools in a short period, said David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program.

The new arrangements, which have been used successfully in Great Britain and Canada, rely on private financing, he said. The possibility also exists, he said, for local governments to work together on getting schools repaired and upgraded.

Lever said the state estimates that nearly $6 billion is needed to upgrade Maryland schools to the bare minimum of standards. Under those standards, for instance, a large high school would not be required to have an auditorium. The localities have different building plans.

"We have made some gains over the past 11 years; however, the volume of projects creates an enormous hurdle in the path of funding," Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in an email. "We are constantly looking for options and monitoring our revenue projections along with the economy."

Anne Arundel, which opens schools on Tuesday, has a list of projects it hopes to complete in the next several years, including replacing Severna Park High School and replacing or renovating six elementary schools. Howard is proceeding with renovations at Mount Hebron High School and other schools.

Other localites have smaller needs. Carroll County, for instance, hasn't seen its enrollment increase. Bill Caine, a facilities planner, said the county needs about $233 million to renovate and build new schools. It is currently replacing Mount Airy Middle School, at a cost of $3 million.

Many of the schools in the state were constructed during the baby boom of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Lever said, many districts put up buildings inexpensively and quickly, believing enrollments would eventually decline and that many of the schools would be closed within decades. Windows and mechanical systems were particularly poor, he said.

But after a slight decline in enrollment, the student population is beginning to climb again, particularly in Baltimore County where the number of students in all elementary schools will exceed the number of seats available by 2014. Eight elementary schools already have 20 percent more students than they should, as of last September.

The crowding is concentrated in the York Road corridor and the northwest parts of the county, which will each need at least one new elementary school in the next five years, according to Michael Sines, head of Baltimore County school facilities.

Phi Delta Kappa International, a nonprofit group that analyzes school systems, audited Baltimore County in 2007 and reported facilities were so deteriorated that the situation interfered with learning. The team of auditors looked at 157 schools and found a significant number in poor condition.

Sines acknowledged that some of the deterioration came about because the system wasn't spending money on maintenance. However, he pointed out that the county has spent $1 billion in the past decade to renovate and step up maintenance of its buildings. The system is building two new high schools, Carver Center for Arts & Technology and Dundalk/Sollers Point, and renovating two others, Milford Mill and Parkville.

"The physical facilities in Baltimore County are not in a crisis predicament," Sines said. With a continued commitment of capital for maintenance and renovation, he said, "This school system is on a good course."

But that view is not shared by some Baltimore County parents, who note a variety of deficiencies and have agitated for the county to build new schools and renovate others more quickly.

Among their complaints: Only about half the schools in the county are air-conditioned and temperatures have risen to over 100 degrees in classrooms in some schools during the spring and fall. The city and county school systems regularly shut down because of heat.

At Hampton Elementary, where enrollment rose far above its capacity, class sizes exceeded 26 children in first-grade homerooms, and a first-grade math class two years ago had 29 students, said Yara Cheikh, the mother of three students at the school. That's above the Baltimore County average of 22 students in a first-grade class.

This coming school year, the entire fourth and fifth grades of the school will attend class in trailers. The system is building an addition to hold another 300 students, but the cafeteria and gym are not being expanded. The addition is expected to open in fall 2012.

West Towson plans to accommodate additional students by using some open-space areas in the school and the stage for teaching instrumental and vocal music classes.

Sines said the school system has reduced its capital request from the county for the fiscal school year that begins in July 2012. Officials plan to finish projects that have been started and scale back plans to begin major renovations to any other high schools.

Other school systems also are moving more slowly on capital projects as funding sources dry up.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's office said in a statement that he is "continuing to work together with the school system using the systemic, strategic approach to prioritizing construction needs within the school buildings that has served us well."

The sheer volume of the need in the city was documented in a report by the ACLU of Maryland a year ago. The group suggested the city explore several different alternative funding mechanisms being used around the country.

Lever said he is proposing a different financing model than the ACLU has highlighted, but both concepts involve tapping private or nonprofit groups to help finance school projects.

"There is wealth out there, and we need to connect it to the need," Lever said. "The public doesn't have the resources to do it at this time."

Lever has invited city and county officials and school system leaders to a meeting Sept. 19 to discuss the idea, which is in the preliminary stages. "This is certainly worth investigating," he said.

On Thursday, the ACLU and its partner organizations launched a citywide campaign called "Transform Baltimore." The campaign aims to galvanize parents to fight for upgrades of the city's dilapidated infrastructure at 50 back-to-school nights in September. It also is seeking to press city and state political leaders to boost capital funding.

In a presentation to the Baltimore City Council in the spring, school officials identified 162 schools that need upgrades, at least 100 of which should be replaced or require major renovations. Equipping more than 80 schools with air conditioning would cost an estimated $277 million.

The city school system has ramped up efforts to improve its facilities. But the system's needs are still being investigated, and it has commissioned a $1.4 million independent review of all buildings. It plans to use the review's findings to solicit private donors.

Anne Arundel also has significant needs, according to Alex Szachnowicz, the school system's chief operating officer. He has requested $1.9 billion for school project construction through 2017, including $157 million for this year's budget. The County Council approved $116 million for this year's budget.

"Things have gotten older and older, have deteriorated further and become more costly" since a study done five years ago estimated the need, he said.

The Howard County school system's budget included a $508 million capital improvement plan through 2017.

"It doesn't represent everything. We think this is what we could reasonably afford over the next five years," said Howard schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

Baltimore Sun reporters Joe Burris and Erica L. Green contributed to this article.