When Oakland Mills High School teachers showed up for work Monday morning, they were greeted by the sounds of rushing water.

Water leaked from the ceiling, covering the floors of classrooms and hallways and soaking the staffers’ shoes. Ceiling tiles fell and broke into pieces on the floor. School was quickly closed.

The closure came as no surprise to the Oakland Mills High community. In September, the media center closed for several days after the discovery of mold growth on bookshelves. Last May, air ducts in the video production classroom spewed black goo, covering most of the classroom and emitting a foul odor.

Oakland Mills High, which opened in 1973 and was one of the first high schools to serve the planned community of Columbia, has faced structural problems for years. Promises of a full-scale renovation and addition have fallen short.

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That left building maintenance staff scrambling to repair a water leak and restore plumbing Monday, while custodial staff and a contractor extracted water from the tile floors. The school system’s indoor environmental quality manager surveyed the building with the principal and other staff. Students returned Tuesday.

“Preventing the growth of mold was a top consideration during the repair and cleanup of the broken water pipe,” Dan Lubeley, the school system’s acting chief operating officer, said in a statement to The Baltimore Banner. “Wet ceiling tiles and duct insulation were removed to prevent mold growth and will be replaced after the drying process is complete.”

Lubeley added, “The cleanup is going well, and the potential for fungal amplification is low due to the amount of care and intentionality that was included as part of the repair and restoration process.”

Students, parents and staff have long voiced concerns about mold at the school, fluctuating temperatures and falling ceiling tiles, among other issues.

“It’s so sad. There is such a strong spirit at Oakland Mills High and in Oakland Mills [Village] in general,” said Krista Threefoot, a parent of Oakland Mills High and Oakland Mills Middle students. “This is what Columbia was supposed to be, people of different economic backgrounds and races living together, going to school together and shopping together. And, yet, we are being shunted. There is some irony to that.”

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Oakland Mills High is a majority-minority school, with 84.5% of the student population representing different races and ethnicities from their white peers.

The school underwent renovations and additions in 1991, 1998 and 2004. A school system assessment from the 2017-18 academic year identified the need for renovations as far back as 2009.

“When originally deferred, this was a major HVAC renovation project; however it has been nine years since the project was deferred. Current conditions at the school now require a full renovation,” the report stated. “Due to the fact that the [HVAC] system is old, obsolete and continues to be problematic, we are unable to provide a conducive learning environment to both the students and staff.”

The timeline for repairs was a source of friction between recently departed Superintendent Michael Martirano and the school community.

Martirano would completely remove the project from the district’s capital improvement plan, and when the school board would put it back in, the next annual proposal from Martirano would knock it down or out. This is what is known as deferred maintenance. When the upkeep of building and equipment projects can’t be met in a timely fashion, it is repeatedly delayed, creating a backlog.

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“It’s not our responsibility to convince [the school system] to renovate or maintain; it’s your responsibility as a school district to maintain your school buildings,” said Amy Brooks, an English teacher at Oakland Mills High, which has more than 1,400 students.

Brooks noted that, while students typically pass through the school in four years, teachers and staff can spend decades there.

“People are investing huge portions of their adult life to be in our community, and they love it so much. It would be nice to have the bare minimum in terms of breathable air, drinkable water, quality classrooms and safe learning environments,” said Brooks, whose children have graduated from or now attend Oakland Mills High School.

The future renovation project would replace the high school’s aging heating and cooling systems, upgrade the electrical and plumbing networks, ensure the school is fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, add new security and data systems and expand capacity.

The school system’s timeline calls for the $121 million project to be completed in September 2031. That means the renovation and addition would be finished 20 years after the system determined the school needed a new HVAC system.

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“The message we are getting is they really don’t care at all about our school being healthy, safe or standing in the future,” Threefoot said. “Talking pipe dreams, but Oakland Mills High needs to be fixed now. It needs to be in the budget next year.”

Members of the Howard County delegation to the General Assembly expressed concern about Monday’s flooding in a letter to acting Superintendent Bill Barnes and the school board. The letter, signed by Sen. Guy Guzzone and Dels. Vanessa Atterbeary, Pam Guzzone and Jen Terrasa, asked the school system to share information “to help ensure the school is as safe and healthy as possible for students and staff.”

Atterbeary has again filed legislation to address the backlog of school maintenance projects. If passed, her bill would allow the county council to impose an excise tax on commercial building construction. The revenues from the tax would go straight to the school system’s deferred maintenance funding.

However, the Howard County delegation did not vote on Atterbeary’s bill during a meeting Wednesday, instead referring it along with other bills to a working group. She previously offered the bill in 2022, 2021 and 2020.

The school system has about $600 million in deferred maintenance and projects, Lubeley said.

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A cluster of schools in Columbia have faced or are facing similar situations to Oakland Mills High School. The Talbott Springs Elementary and Hammond High communities have fought for improvements for years. After many delays, Talbott Springs finally was replaced with a new building and Hammond High was renovated and expanded. Schools still waiting include Oakland Mills Middle, Dunloggin Middle, Patapsco Middle and Murray Hill Middle schools.

For Jonathan Edelson, the father of a junior at Oakland Mills High School and a seventh grader at Oakland Mills Middle School, the battle for repairs has been both “motivating” and “demoralizing.”

“It’s a good fight. The students testifying now will never benefit for an ounce of this, but they are still speaking up,” said Edelson, who is also the chairman of the Oakland Mills Community Association. “The community is coming together not to benefit their current children or students, but so there’s not another generation dealing with this.”

As with the replacement of Talbott Springs Elementary, Edelson needs to see shovels in the ground at Oakland Mills High to finally believe the construction will happen.

Rohan Warrier, in his final year at Oakland Mills High, was a sophomore when he joined efforts to see the school renovated. He said he has worked to change a narrative that some in the county have about his school.

“Our community has been stereotyped and faced with so many misconceptions,” the 17-year-old said. “As a result … we are an incredibly strong community and stick together no matter what.”

Warrier added that many of his classmates feel sick when they enter school and have to deal with mold, humidity and high temperatures. Even if students are lucky to be in a classroom with a working AC unit, Warrier said, “It’s incredibly loud and disruptive.”

Jessica Mahajan, a mother of two Oakland Mills High School students, feels frustrated that students from their school and others “are being treated less than other students around the county.”

But Mahajan is grateful that her two oldest children attend the high school because of its close-knit community.

“Despite the neglect by the school system for capital improvements and equitable resources, many, many people continue to move back to Oakland Mills when they start their families,” she said. “My kids are getting a great education. I don’t want them or other kids to lose the Oakland Mills High community.”

Students and teachers have said they appreciate the efforts of school administrators and custodial staff to make repairs or improvements as they arise.

“The poor quality of the Oakland Mills High and Oakland Mills Middle school buildings does not reflect the high quality of the staff, students and community,” Mahajan said.

Rob Schantz, a 2019 graduate of Oakland Mills High School, always thought he had bad allergies when he was in high school. After graduating, though, his congestion and coughing disappeared — except when he returns to work as a substitute teacher at his alma mater during breaks from graduate school.

“Other schools are worried about not having cushioned seats in their auditorium,” he said. “Meanwhile, Oakland Mills High wants clear air.”

Despite everything, Warrier remains hopeful that Oakland Mills High will get its long-overdue renovation. Community members and students turned out this past fall at school board meetings to oppose any effort to remove the project from the capital improvement plan again.

“This fight is about making our leaders feel responsible for my school,” Warrier said. “So far it is working.”

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