Blair's growing pains

Feb. 20, 2004, midnight | By Izaak Orlansky | 18 years, 2 months ago

If the walls of Blair could talk, they would groan. Lights are broken in and around the school, making rainy days particularly dark. Bathroom sinks have a tendency to break, sometimes leaking through the floor. The "injuries" have added up: Look five years earlier, and one finds out why: Substandard material was used in constructing parts of the new school. The mistakes have been costly for both the students and the school system alike.

Since contracts tend to go to the lowest bidder, construction materials at Blair have been less-than-perfect and have led to deterioration. "I can't think of anything in here that's worked," Building Service Manager James Brown says, pointing to a foot-high stack of requests to the Department of Maintenance for repairs. Most recent is the breakdown of two supplemental chillers, which caused some classrooms to reach an unbearably hot 91º F. Other "casualties" include plumbing control valves that leak (ever notice those yellow spots?), doorknobs that fall off and lights that have short-circuited out. And the list goes on. Brown, who has opened four renovated schools during his 31 years in building services, says the situation is "probably one of the worst I've been in."

If all of the repair costs were free, perhaps the school could just put up with the hassle. But mistakes have put an unfair economic burden on both MCPS and Blair. While suppliers will sometimes agree to pay for replacement materials (if they admit their materials were defective), the school system always pays for labor costs, which are sometimes more than the material itself. One locker repair this year, for example, cost MCPS $51 in labor and $0.50 for the material.

The case of Blair's broken ballasts in the lighting system demonstrates another economically disturbing blunder. In the last five years, building services has replaced roughly 300 ballasts, or around 60 each year. By comparison, Brown replaced 40 ballasts during his 25+ years before the new building or less than two per year. Each ballast repair costs $67.18. Multiply by 300, and that's $20,000 in labor costs over five years, a price tag that should not be attached to such a new school.

In some cases, the money must also come straight out of Blair's pocket. A graffiti incident this year will cost the school more than $800 unless the perpetrator agrees to pay it off. A new locker for the chemical storage room costs $242. And while most of these expenses are not directly related to construction mistakes, it is important to note that Blair typically spends $25,000 a year in custodial-related costs, almost twice MCPS' $13,500 yearly allocation.

No matter what the cost, the stack of work orders will continue to grow as more things break. "There's nothing you can do except wait," Brown says. It seems a shame for such a beautiful (and expensive) school to slowly deteriorate. At the least, Blair's case will serve as an important reminder to MCPS about the need for careful quality control on construction projects. One can almost hear the walls groan now: The lowest bid is not always the best.

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Izaak Orlansky. Izaak Orlansky is a senior in the Communications Arts Program. His hobbies include cross-country running, swimming, and singing in the spring musical. Izaak is also a big fan of the Yankees, and likes playing with big fluffy dogs. More »

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