On one end of Fairmont Heights High School recently, the home crowd was rooting for the Hornets on the basketball court. On the other end, the four dozen parents and students who had gathered in the aging, cramped cafeteria were throwing tough questions at Prince George's County school officials:
How long were they going to let water leak into classrooms through damaged roofs? Why hasn't the science laboratory been renovated in 50 years? Why are library books so old? And, most importantly, why do other high schools seem to get more resources?
"The problem," said Leroy Tompkins, the school system's director of instruction, "is that we don't have enough of anything."
Meri Young, a mother of two Fairmont students, jumped out of her seat and shook her finger toward Tompkins.
"Eleanor Roosevelt High has enough, Bowie High has enough, Parkdale High has enough of everything," Young said angrily. "These answers are not acceptable. We don't want to hear these lame excuses."
As county and school leaders begin mapping out plans to build dozens of new schools, parents of students at older county schools such as Fairmont Heights, which was built in 1950, have become increasingly frustrated with the deteriorating conditions of school buildings. Questions about equity and fair allocation of resources have grown louder as parents watched officials pour funds into construction of new schools while the list of renovations planned at older schools dwindled.
Currently, eight significant projects are underway: Five are new schools costing a total of $127.8 million, and the rest are large-scale renovations, costing $19 million.
School Superintendent Iris T. Metts's capital construction plan calls for 26 new schools and renovations at all schools older than 16 years. But the plan would cost $2.9 billion, far more than county officials say they can afford.
"I'm grounded in the realism of our tremendous needs and limited resources," said County Council Vice Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "Where we'll find the money from will be tough."
Former county Board of Education chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland), who now heads a state panel studying ways to distribute education funds equitably, said the problem of school renovations is not unique to Prince George's.
"Schools like Fairmont Heights represent a systemic national phenomenon," Thornton said. "That is the inability of counties to fund the repairs to a layer of aging buildings. Even in a richer county like Montgomery, you still have this kind of difference between a state-of-the-art school and those that are not."
Fairmont Heights is not the oldest building in Prince George's, and many of the county's 185 public schools are in equally poor, or worse, condition. Twenty-one schools do not have air conditioning; an additional 58 have air conditioning in only part of the building. Even the newest high school, Eleanor Roosevelt, in Greenbelt, which was built in 1976, has technology that will seem archaic when compared with the high school that will open this fall in Springdale.
Alex Szachnowicz, the school system's director of maintenance, said the average age of Prince George's schools is 36 years. He said the county did little building or renovating for 20 years, starting in the mid-1970s, and now is "playing catch-up."
Fairmont Heights, a three-story building on sloping land in Capitol Heights, was partially renovated in 1983. But it still exhibits problems typical of aging schools.
A trip inside the boys' locker room reveals a urinal ripped from the wall, where workers have been trying to find the source of a leaking pipe. One floor down, just outside the girls' locker room, plaster on the walls is buckled and torn because water seeps in from outside.
In the science laboratories, wooden tables are scratched with graffiti and cabinets and several drawers are broken. In one room, only two of the 18 faucets are in working condition.
Parents are particularly appalled by these rooms because the school offers a biotechnology magnet program.
"I bring him here to prepare him for college, but he's suffering," said Mary Holt, whose son, Demetrius, is a sophomore in the magnet program. "He's not getting the level of education that they advertise and I expect."
Demetrius, 15, said that in his seventh-period world history class, students have grown accustomed to the teacher pulling out a bucket to catch leaking water on rainy days.
Ella Lewis, a parent activist in the Capitol Heights community, says school officials should concentrate on renovations before building new schools.
"Don't let children get wet," she said. "The basics have to be in place before you build new schools."
School board member Catherine A. Smith (Cheverly) said money had been earmarked for science lab renovations at Fairmont Heights several years ago but was shifted elsewhere by school officials who believed it was more important to put labs at schools that didn't have them. However, renovations to the labs at Suitland High have continued, Smith said.
"This is completely unsatisfactory," Smith said. "If they're good enough for Suitland, they're good enough for us."
Szachnowicz said that his office tries to meet the needs of all schools but that his maintenance budget of $19.9 million has grown just 0.28 percent in the past nine years.
Metts has estimated the system's renovation needs at $2 billion and said she intends to prioritize them by this summer.
"This district has never ranked itself. Whichever community came in and hollered the loudest got the attention," Metts said. "I'm going to rank the whole thing, even though some will hate the rankings."
CAPTION: Fred Price, a PTSA officer at aging Fairmont Heights High, stands in the boys' locker room, where walls are crumbling from extensive water damage caused by a leaking roof, ceilings and floors. The Capitol Heights school was built in 1950.