New Roof at Roland Park Elementary/Middle Causes Concern

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Roland Park Elementary/Middle
Roland Park Elementary/Middle School

Last winter’s 29-inch snow storm has triggered the need for another expensive repair to public property, this time involving the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) system.

Less than six months after the school system finished installing a new, historically appropriate clay tile roof on Roland Park Elementary/Middle School at a cost of about $800,000, the city agency is apparently getting ready to remove that clay tile roof and replace it with an asphalt shingle roof.

Contractors have erected scaffolding around the building at 5207 Roland Avenue in preparation for the roof replacement.

At least one community leader has expressed concerns that the city is not planning to use appropriate materials for the latest work on the building, which was designed by the noted firm of Palmer and Lamdin and opened in 1924.

The reason for the work and the expense, according to one school official, is that the new roof was damaged during the record-setting snowstorm last January.

“For more than a year, work has been underway on a major project to replace and repair the roof,”  J. Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the school system, wrote in an April 6 letter addressed to the Roland Park Elementary/Middle School Community.

“Unfortunately, due to the January blizzard and other setbacks, the project has been delayed.  However, City Schools is working hard to complete the roof before the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

“During January’s blizzard, large sections of tiles from parts of the newly installed roof became dislodged,” Scroggins continued. “City Schools commissioned a study to identify why this happened and will receive the results at the end of April. On Monday, April 11th, work will begin to remove the original tiles and install new shingles.

“The safety and security of our students and staff are our top priority. Thank you for your patience and support as we work to complete this project. If you have any questions or concerns about the project, please feel free to contact me by email at [email protected].”

The replacement of the school’s roof is beginning one month after the city spent $500,000 to repair two Camden Yards parking lots that were damaged by contractors dumping snow there after the January storm. The parking lots are managed by the Maryland Stadium Authority and had to be repaired before the start of the baseball season at Oriole Park this month.

The repair work in Roland Park has been questioned by the former president of the Wyndhurst Improvement Association, whose members live near the school.

James Determan, a local architect and Tuxedo Park resident, said he monitored the last roof replacement effort closely when he was president of the improvement association, a position that ended in January, and has continued to follow changes to the building. He praised the city for using clay tiles for the last roof replacement because that is what the architects specified in 1924.

The school is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Roland Park Historic District. The building is not a city landmark, but Baltimore’s preservation commission has the authority to review changes because it is a city-owned building and considered an historic asset.

Determan said he was alarmed to find out that the school system is not planning to use clay tiles this time but instead plans to install asphalt shingles. Besides not being original to the building, he said, asphalt shingles have a life span of about 20 years and will need to be replaced after that, while clay tiles have an estimated life span of 50 years.

Determan said he believes the city is wasting taxpayers’ funds by removing the clay tiles that were just installed at a cost of $800,000, and not using similar materials for the new roof. He added that he was puzzled that the work is moving ahead before the city receives the results of the study Scroggins mentioned in his letter to the community.  He noted that the school is one of the most important public buildings in Roland Park and neighbors are concerned that it is properly maintained.

Regarding historical accuracy, he said, he considers the proposed use of asphalt shingles to be a case of “dumbing down” the original design and squandering the taxpayers’ investment.

“As taxpayers we should be outraged by the waste of our tax dollars,” he said. “As an architect, I am outraged by the disrespect of an historic asset in our community.  And as a community member, I cannot go through another year of construction noise knowing they are diminishing this historic building.”

Yesterday. Determan sent a letter to school system Chief Executive Officer Gregory Thornton and elected officials expressing his concerns in three areas.  He said he was writing as a private, tax-paying citizen and area resident, not as the former head of the Wyndhurst Improvement Association.

The three areas of impact he discussed were:

Taxpayer Impact: “First I want to congratulate BCPS for deciding to install the clay tile roof on this historic asset in our community,” he wrote. “I am sure a premium investment was made to provide the historically accurate roof and enjoy a 50-year life in lieu of a lesser roof material.  Which generates my first question: Why would BCPS remove a brand new 50-year clay tile roof and install a 20-year asphalt shingle roof in its place, instead of repairing the limited damage to the clay tile roof?  I estimate it cost taxpayers $800,000 for the clay tile roof and may well cost the same to remove and replace with a lesser roof, whose life is one-third of the clay tile.  I cannot understand the logic employed here and it seems like a waste of taxpayer money.  Why not repair instead of replace? Why would BCPS throw away that original investment?  If the installation was deficient, why is the builder not being held accountable?  Why are taxpayers paying for this? Why install the shingles before the results of the study are known? How is this the best business decision for the city?”

Historic Impact: “The city’s historic structures are precious and valuable,” he said. “By installing the clay tile roof, the same roof as the original, BCPS is being a responsible caretaker of our shared historic resources. These buildings must be preserved, especially at schools, so we can teach future generations the culture of our common history. To now remove the right solution and install the wrong solution demonstrates just the opposite — a lack of understanding of this value — and that is a lesson for students as well.  BCPS greatly diminishes the value of this historic place by this decision.  If government does not set the example of preserving our city’s history, how can we expect private developers to do so?”

Community Impact: “Finally, we wish BCPS would consider [Roland Park Elementary/Middle School’s] community and neighbors,” he said. “The impact of this work is the concern of Greater Roland Park.  But our community associations were not informed about any of it.  The construction of the clay tile roof has dragged out almost two years.  When it began, construction occurred between the hours of 4:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.  This was in violation of Baltimore City law and BCPS was informed it was unacceptable.  Every weekday until 7 p.m. and on weekends for two years the tranquility of our community was diminished by the noise of trucks and alarms.  This was not an insignificant intrusion to the quality of life in our neighborhood.  To understand that BCPS will now repeat this intrusion demonstrates a profound lack of community consideration. These projects have a traffic and noise impact in the community; it is imperative we are informed about construction projects.”

Scroggins did not respond to requests for additional information about the roof replacement.

Eric Holcomb, executive director of the city’s preservation commission, and Tom Liebel, chairman of the preservation commission, could not be reached.  Liebel’s firm, Marks Thomas Architects, was the architect for the roof replacement when the city used clay tiles.

Determan said he would like the school system to stop work on the project so the community has a chance to learn about the latest round of work and get questions answered. Ultimately, he said, he would like the school system to continue using clay tiles for the roof.

“The reason Greater Roland Park is a great community is because neighbors fight for it,” he said in his letter to Thornton. “Please see this letter as an expression of great concern for a valuable neighbor.”

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts


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3 COMMENTS

  1. As a professional roof consultant who lives very near the school and has worked with BCPS Facilities Design and Construction Department in the past, I have seen firsthand the incompetence of BCPS Facilities Design and Construction Department. They have no knowledge of how to properly manage roof replacement projects which are one of the largest expenses of any school district. BCPS cannot afford to put a brand new, historically appropriate clay tile roof on this school and then because it wasn’t designed, installed or managed properly, tear if off and put on an inappropriate asphalt shingle roof. I have watched over the past two years or so as the project has started, stopped, and finally was finished recently, and now they want to rip it off and start again! A project that should have taken six months lasted two years. I am sure the reason for the two years of fits and starts and delays was that BCPS hired the low bidder roofing firm that had little or no knowledge of how to properly install a clay tile roof and BCPS eventually had to fire them, but not before paying them most of the cost of the original contract to get them to walk away from the project. BCPS then hired a second roofing firm to finish the job and the total cost was probably twice what was originally budgeted for the project. They are now going to compound their incompetence by spending an even larger amount of money to rip off the clay tile and install a boring asphalt shingle roof. It seems city taxpayers are paying three times as much money as we should for one roof and not even getting the historically appropriate roof system for the school!
    I would like to see Mr. Scroggins audit the entire project and give the community a full accounting of the costs including how much money was planned for the project, and how much money was finally spent to complete the project. I want to know how much the original roofer was paid to NOT finish the job, how much BCPS had to pay the second roofer to finish it and how much BCPS is paying the third roofing company to remove and replace the brand new clay tile roof. Also add in the cost of two year’s worth of BCPS project management (four times what it should be) and associated legal fees. Finally, I would like to see him hold his employees accountable for their decisions by firing the ones responsible for this debacle.
    I was personally involved with one other BCPS roof replacement project a few years ago on another city school in which the exact same scenario played out. The original roofer was paid 90% of the cost of the project (about $1.8 million dollars) but only completed 60% of the roof due to BCPS project management and the original roofer’s incompetence. BCPS finally fired the original roofer and had to hire another roofer to finish the job. That project ended up costing city taxpayers twice what it should have plus it resulted in a tremendous amount of legal fees for BCPS. I have worked with other school construction departments in suburban counties that aren’t perfect, but they get their roofs replaced at a reasonable cost and usually on budget. Baltimore City taxpayers like me who send their kids to city public schools (I have two kids who went to city schools) deserve better from the BCPS and city leadership.
    I would also like to make an observation about the clay tiles that fell off the Roland Park E/M school roof. It appears from a cursory observation from the ground of the fallen tiles, that the reason they fell off was not because of the attachment of the clay tiles themselves, but because the snow guard system installed above them to keep snow from cascading off the roof failed and pulled a portion of the clay tiles down with it. My guess is that the snow guard system was never properly engineered in the first place. I’ve seen it happen before. One row of snow guards along the bottom eave of the roof does not seem to be enough to hold the large amount of heavy snow we have come to expect during a Baltimore blizzard given the steep slope and long distance from eave to ridge on the school. Snow guard manufacturers usually require one, two or even three rows of snow guards depending on the anticipated snow fall in the area and the size, slope and type of roof system being installed.
    BCPS should do a proper third-party engineering investigation to determine why the clay tile roof failed and then pay to FIX THE PROBLEM with the clay tile roof, not rip it off. If it means adding more snow guards or even it the investigation recommends removing and reattaching every single one of the clay tiles, I doubt it would cost more than removing (and trashing) the clay tiles, and replacing the entire system with a new asphalt shingle roof.
    The average life of a clay tile roof system is 50 – 75 years vs 25-35 years for a high quality asphalt shingle roof, and the average cost of a clay tile roof is about twice as much as an asphalt roof. The life cycle cost, the figure that should be most important for city finances, are about the same.
    One only has to go a few miles from Roland Park E/M School to see a beautiful clay tile roof on the School Sisters of Notre Dame at the corner of Charles St and Bellona Ave. Why are we allowing BCPS to tell us we can’t have a similar, historically accurate, beautiful roof on our local school because they are too incompetent to make it happen?
    Sorry for the venting, but I want to see BCPS and the city improve and succeed for the sake of my kids, but in order for that to happen, we have to expect more from our BCPS and city leadership.

    • Asphalt roofs! There goes the neighborhood. Though, Roland Park Elementary is in Tuxedo Park where slate roofs aren’t required, so it was already anything goes. Let’s hope they buy the same color for the whole job. Nothing worse than Green/Black/Red combos of whatever is on sale.

    • I agree. This is a chance to examine and possibly avoid compounding a multi-faceted problem that includes issues of finance, competency, oversight, etc. Can a hold be placed on the new roof until our new mayor has a chance to look at the matter? School funds are scarce.

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