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Parents Urge School Officials to Halt Repairs

May 5, 2002 | The Baltimore Sun

Four Baltimore County elementary schools have been closed in the past six weeks because of possible asbestos contamination, prompting some parents to call for a halt to all construction work until classes end next month.

The school system is in the midst of a more than $500 million renovation program that will update nearly all of the county's 162 schools. Eighty percent of the county's schools were built more than 40 years ago, most with asbestos-based materials in everything from pipe insulation to floor tiles to the glue that holds blackboards to walls.

School officials say most of the construction work has been problem-free. Given the size of the program, though, it's inevitable that complications will arise. But parents worry that the school their children attend will be the next one in the news.

"As a parent, I feel they don't need to be doing this during the school year," said Jackie Brewster, whose children attend Charlesmont Elementary in Dundalk, where parents worry that dust from a renovation project is making their children sick. "They can do it over the summer when the children are not in school."

Many parents of pupils at Villa Cresta Elementary in Parkville, closed for more than a week because of asbestos contamination, said the same thing at a meeting with school system officials in March.

But Donald F. Krempel, executive director of facilities for the county schools, said that isn't feasible. "There's not enough time. The work's too extensive," he said.

Krempel said contractors do much of the work at night and during the weekend. Projects such as wiring for computers can be done during the day while students are in school. But asbestos work is never to be done with children around, he said.

"What we can do during the day that does not interfere with instruction, we do," he said.

The two biggest known asbestos releases occurred at Hawthorne Elementary in Middle River last fall and Villa Cresta Elementary in March. The contamination at Hawthorne was discovered during a weekend, and the school was closed that Monday and remained closed for three months. During that time, Hawthorne pupils attended others schools.

But the incident at Villa Cresta -- when a worker cut through asbestos-covered pipe -- happened just before school was to open for the day. Nonetheless, classes started on time and a spelling bee was held there that night. The next day, classes were canceled and parents were notified.

Parents complained that doing boiler work in the hours before school opens doesn't give officials enough time to act if something goes wrong.

After saying the school system moved too slowly at Villa Cresta, some parents complained the school system overreacted at the next three schools --Johnnycake, Seneca and Cromwell Valley elementaries -- by closing them without solid evidence of an asbestos release. In two cases, it turned out that the substance being handled contained no asbestos.

Still, some prefer the school system err on the side of caution.

"Nobody wants their child exposed to anything," said Laura Nossel, president of the county's council of PTAs. "I think they [parents] would rather the school system err on the side of safety's sake rather than take a risk."

She is angered more by the lack of information being communicated to parents. Typically, parents are forced to get the story from the news media, she said, instead of from the school itself.

"They [school system officials] have always taken the policy: If they [parents] don't ask, we're not going to tell," said Edward Gizara, a Villa Cresta parent.

"People need to know right away," Nossel said. When officials don't make information available promptly, they breed distrust, she added.

That was evident at the community meetings held after the incidents at Hawthorne and Villa Cresta. Parents were scared and angry and shouted at school officials who were trying to explain what had happened.

Charles A. Herndon, spokesman for the school system, said officials have tried to be responsive.

"We have tried to get as much information out to parents as quickly as possible, and in many cases the news media are the quickest way to do that," he said. "Anyone can appreciate the logistics of getting in touch with 500 parents."

The renovation program, financed by the county and state, is entering its second phase, with $111 million of work scheduled at 43 schools. The work is being overseen by a private company, 3D/International of Houston. Most of the work involves replacement of boilers, electrical wiring, plumbing and lighting. Sprinkler systems are being added and schools are being made accessible to the disabled.

The projects need to be done because maintenance over the years has been sub-par, Herndon said.

In addition, the buildings are simply old. "They are in that age group -- 30, 40, 50 years old," said school board President Donald L. Arnold. "Back at that time, they didn't know as much about asbestos, and they used it in many different things. Who would have ever dreamed in removing a blackboard that the glue holding that blackboard on contained asbestos?"

A major concern when asbestos is released is the potential health hazard it poses. People who are exposed to high levels of asbestos fibers over long periods of time have been known to suffer from health problems ranging from coughs to cancer. But children who are exposed in school are often exposed only briefly and to small amounts, officials said.

"Being exposed for a day is probably of little or no concern at all, which is good news," said Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, Baltimore County's health officer. But, she said, "It's natural for parents to be concerned generally.

"As a parent of two children, I worry about everything, and I'm a doctor. I know some of my concerns are pretty silly, but it's a parental instinct."

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