UPPER MARLBORO – The decision to give Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) students a half-day on the second day of classes on Sept. 5 due to air conditioning issues at several locations is the continuation of building issues with several schools that have been exposed publicly in the past six months.
After providing a “band-aid approach” for the air condition problems, Interim CEO Monica Goldson said it is time to start a comprehensive plan to restore and help older schools in order to maintain the safety of the school system’s 134,000 students, teachers and staff.
“This is not the first time you heard this from me,” Goldston said to Board of Education (BOE) members during the Sept. 6 board meeting. “I shared it when I severed in the role as chief operating officer. We have a $2 billion maintenance backlog with many issues dealing with an aging infrastructure issue.”
After school officials reported 42 schools having little to no air conditioning services on Sept. 4 and the heat index expected to be as high as 105 degrees the following day, the decision was made to shorten the school day in order to get building services crews and HVAC crews out to fix each facility, according to Goldson.
“I made sure that we did not make a last-minute decision,” Goldson said. “Every situation will not afford us that type of opportunity, but this one did.”
While the rest of the county worked through the half-day, two schools, Riverdale Elementary, and Margaret Brent Regional School ,stayed closed as maintenance crews worked quickly to have their air conditioning problems resolved.
Both schools fall in District 2, where Board Member Lupi Quinteros-Grady resides. According to Quinteros-Grady, the closure was a smart decision for Riverdale as it has had overcrowding problems in recent years. With rising temperatures combined with no air conditioning in an overpopulated area, it could have made for a dangerous situation.
“It is really alarming in the sense that you do not want students using facilities that are not conducive to an educational environment,” Quinteros-Grady said. “It is frustrating to be in this place where there are so many demands. Forty-two schools are a lot out of 200 facilities. That is a lot of children, teachers and so forth.”
According to Quinteros-Grady, buildings are inspected during the summer and problems are addressed quickly. However, older buildings that are over 20 years old require daily care in their current condition with special orders needed to replace parts that no longer exist. If new issues arise after inspection, they are dealt with in a “reactive mode” instead of a proactive one.
The same approach was seen in April after local media outlet Fox 5 reported that teachers at District Heights Elementary School on County Road were set to strike as mold was found in several classrooms. Instead of closing the school with three months remaining after independent testing found “inadequate air quality,” students and upset parents finished the school year in the facility.
“It is safe and we are confident that the work is done on increased air flow and the test results that we have to tell us that building is safe or we would not be sending people there,” Former PGCPS CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell said in the April 5 board meeting.
Conditions worsen over time, according to Goldston, as maintenance staff found the reappearance of mold during summer inspections. After an external evaluation recommended the use of dehumidifiers to control the molds growth during class time, the decision was made on Aug. 24 to look for new housing options for students one week before school was set to start.
“When (Goldson) called me about it and told me there was a concern, I was very pleased that she took action because that has become a problem for the health of the children and our members,” Prince George’s County Educators’ Association (PGCEA) President Theresa Mitchell Dudley said.
Problems have not been just limited to the public schools.
Turning Point Academy teacher Forrest Ingram-Johnson recalled the poor conditions he found in his temporary trailer classroom before his seventh-grade class was moved to the gym. Each charter school operator is in charge of repairs but can seek assistance from PGCPS, Goldson said.
“When we came back from break, there was a hole on the floor, and it took forever to get that hole fixed,” Ingram-Johnson said during the June 28 board meeting. “We had what looked like mold in our temps, and there were seven groups of students and teachers displaced.”
Goldson is pushing an $8 billion, 20-year plan for building restoration and new AC units for older schools to end the “cycle of crisis management” behavior. If the BOE approves the budget, Goldson said it will need support from the winners from both the county executive and state governor races to be fully funded.
“Please make no mistake, and we will continue to do all we can to make sure all our buildings are operating the best that they can,” Goldson said. “However, the truth is this is a band-aid to a much larger issue.”