The new Patterson Mill Middle High School should be the pride of Harford County. Thanks to the decision to forward fund several schools, Patterson Mill was the first in a string of long overdue construction projects intended to launch our students into the 21st century. Patterson Mill boasts many state-of-the-art features on the inside, but on the outside at least, someone clearly dropped the ball.
With several big ticket projects in the works, namely Bel Air and Edgewood high schools, Deerfield and Youth’s Benefit elementary schools, not to mention two brand new schools in various stages of development, the Patterson Mill experience may serve as a cautionary tale to the thousands of parents and other taxpayers who want to ensure that their school facilities are planned appropriately and delivered as planned.
School officials were in a hurry to open Patterson Mill by the first day of school in August, 2007. Considering the size of the project and the crush of time, it’s not surprising that some areas were initially overlooked. Parents, while delighted by much of what Patterson Mill had to offer, also made note of potential safety hazards, incomplete work and inadequate designs, assuming that reasonable concerns would be addressed. Parent Joe LaFleur first contacted school-based administrators nine months ago to bring attention to several issues. When he didn’t get action, he went to the board of education in September, expecting they would follow-up. He never even got a response.
This meant that damaged utility boxes with exposed wires sat on the site for months, despite parents’ efforts. One box was removed only after LaFleur and another parent, Dan Fuhrman, literally walked the grounds with the building engineer and pointed it out. Not that the box was hard to find, near the sidewalk along Patterson Mill Road and accessible to students and anyone else who happened to be passing by. The box is now fixed, but an open ditch was left behind and another broken box still sits not 3 feet from the upper parking lot.
Sharp drop-offs, one more than 6 feet deep, pervade the outdoor physical education areas and border active ball fields that are used not only by the school but by Parks & Rec coaches, players and fans. LaFleur, Fuhrman and other parents asked for fencing or infill at crucial locations before the spring sports season began. Their vigilance will be little solace to the first player who literally goes off the deep end chasing a fly ball.
Some of the fencing that is in place is too low, backstops are too small and the grading of many of the fields is visibly off kilter.
Overall grading problems allowed erosion, ruts and poor drainage to plague the entire site. Many students are walkers to the school, but the material used for walkways has scattered, leaving dirt paths that turn to mud trails when it rains.
Windows in the press box don’t open, so officials can’t talk to announcers if there’s an emergency or simply to convey information about the game. The building’s pitched roof doesn’t accommodate filming, the ticket windows are poorly placed for crowd control and the two small windows in the concession stand only open part way and put handicapped customers in a narrow lane up against a fence. The whole structure, while attractive from the outside, seems like it was designed by someone who’s never even been to a football, soccer or lacrosse game, let alone tried to work at one.
Finally, items that appear on the original site plan such as a walkway across the upper parking lot, never materialized. Sidewalk steps abruptly end so that students heading out from the school to the fields must decide whether to walk into an active parking lot, on marshy grass or on a narrow dirt path wedged between the stadium fence and a drop-off.
School personnel did identify some issues on their own, like the mind-altering noise in the cafeteria, although that one was hard to miss. But parents, athletic boosters and PTA members had to pepper the school system with e-mails, phone calls and requests at meetings just to get these other items on the radar.
In all, concerned parents compiled a list of 31 items (pdf file) and distributed it to the principal and to central office staff. Most of the issues involve the outdoor facilities, but they are the ones in plain view and open to the entire community. It makes you wonder about the stuff you can’t see.
Parents continued asking administrators for action all through the fall, winter and early spring. Finally, the widening circle of parents asking questions stirred the principal to arrange a walk-though of the property on April 10th. School-based administrators, central office staff and representatives from Parks & Rec were reportedly in attendance. But when LaFleur, Fuhrman and other parents offered to attend, they received no response. And when LaFleur asked central office staff for access to the site plan back in September, he was told to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Fuhrman, an engineer by trade, wanted to see the site plans to determine which items were the responsibility of the school system and which might be the responsibility of contractors. Site Resources Inc. was the civil engineer and landscape architect on the project and Urban N. Zink was paid about $5 million for the site work. Both Fuhrman and LaFleur eventually got a look at the site plan in April and did indeed find some discrepancies which they reported back to staff.
Rather than embrace parents who volunteer their time and their expertise, too often school officials cast these parents as trouble-makers, reject their input and end up wasting valuable time.
In this case, the group doing the walk-through in April found many of the same issues identified by parents last September (pdf file). Why did it take seven months of pressure to get people to do their jobs?
At least school officials are finally “looking into” these items and have promised a response sometime this week.
And where was the board of education? Instead of ensuring that the superintendent and her staff were addressing concerns, on March 10th the board approved a transfer of $140,000 out of the Patterson Mill capital account as “excess”. That was before the parent-inspired walk-through by school officials and before parents raised questions about the differences between the site plan and the completed project. Fortunately, there’s still $1.7 million left in the account if adjustments have to be made. But over the next several years, as the board spends millions more on future projects, the question remains: who will keep their eye on the ball?