- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
On April 25, Spring Ridge Middle School caught on fire. No one was in the school, and the blaze was discovered around 10 p.m. by a passing motorist, who saw a bush in flames in front of the building.
Firefighters quickly arrived to extinguish the blaze. Had they been 10 minutes later, firefighters said, the damage would have been far more extensive. As it was, nine eighth-grade classrooms were damaged by fire and smoke, five of them so severely that they will not be repaired by the end of the school year.
The fire was started by an electrical malfunction in a heating and air-conditioning unit — a system that reached the end of its expected life span in 1999.
Had a long-planned, and long-delayed, renovation project for Spring Ridge gone forward earlier, the fire almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred. But the project was pushed back several times in school board budget plans at the urging of the St. Mary’s County commissioners and with the acquiescence of the school board.
This doesn’t make the county commissioners or the school board directly culpable for the fire. There are a lot of school construction projects that move up and down, in and out, of the five-year budget plan. There’s nothing to be gained from trying to pin the blame for the delay of this renovation on a particular group of commissioners or school board members.
But the fire does highlight the need, and urgency, of going forward with the renovation of Spring Ridge Middle School. There were encouraging signs this week that may happen.
Spring Ridge was built in 1974, using the antiquated classroom-without-walls pod system, a failed experiment in education that leaves the sounds of multiple teachers in multiple classes drifting around students throughout the day. Leonardtown Middle School was built a year later using essentially the same blueprint. A renovation project there was completed in 2011.
The time clearly has come to move forward on the renovation at Spring Ridge. And acting now is likely to save money.
There are three reasons for this. One is that the construction cost will surely rise if finishing it is put off until 2021, as was the plan before the fire last week. Another is that repairing the damage done to the eighth-grade classrooms, which will be covered by insurance, can be tied into renovation plans. And if the commissioners act quickly the state government is likely to pick up a bigger share of the cost than if the renovation is delayed. Right now the state pays 70 percent of school construction costs in St. Mary’s County. That percentage is dropping to 65 percent in July, and 64 percent the following year. It may continue to decline after that.
It will take years to actually finish the renovation, but now is the time for the county to step up to get it moving and secure the state’s commitment to pay its share.
This is both a matter of financial responsibility and safety — the rest of the heating and air-conditioning system at Spring Ridge not damaged by the fire remains 14 years past its expiration date and the school has no fire sprinklers.