A fancy and expensive new school roof failed during the January blizzard, shedding heavy terra cotta tiles and forcing a reckoning at the school system’s building department. Parents of students at the Roland Park Elementary Middle School received a letter from J. Keith Scroggins, the Baltimore City Schools chief operating officer, suggesting (without stating explicitly) that the new roof—completed last fall after a contentious two-year construction process--is going to be replaced by a simpler (and less historically pleasing) shingle roof.
“During January’s blizzard, large sections of tiles from parts of the newly-installed roof became dislodged,” Scroggins wrote on April 6. “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.”
Some parents are worried that the tiles pose a threat to their children. Other neighborhood residents are concerned about the apparent rush to install a cheaper roof. Scroggins and his staff did not immediately respond to an email from City Paper, but some public records and interviews with people who have been following the saga show the outline of what appears to be a troubling screw-up for a school system embarking on a billion-dollar rebuilding project.
James Determan, an architect and past president of the Wyndhurst Improvement Association, wrote a letter to Schools CEO Gregory Thornton, asking, among other questions, “why would BCPS remove a brand new 50-year clay roof and install a 20-year asphalt shingle roof in its place, instead of repairing the limited damage to the clay tile roof?”
The story begins in 2013 with a bid solicitation for a new roof on the 80-plus year old school. The original specification called for asphalt shingles—the kind of roof on most modern buildings. When it was first built in the 1920s it had barrel arched terra-cotta tiles like you’d see in Spain or the American Southwest. But these were gone—or at least invisible—by mid-century. Beyond that, a lot was unknown about what was under the top layer of shingles: tear-off and inspection of “unknown material” was specified for several parts of the roof deck.
The bids came back, a source says, low enough for the school system to go fancy: why not put on a new roof that was like the historic old terra cotta?
“The architects pushed for this,” says Determan. “Unfortunately the procurement for BCPS is terrible—they go with the low bidder.”
A new bid package was prepared. The first contractor (no one we spoke to remembers the name) reportedly screwed up and was fired. A second contractor (again, no names—we’re looking for it) finished the job, working nights (to the consternation of some neighbors).
All seemed fine until Jan. 28, when more than two feet of snow fell on Baltimore and surrounding areas. Though the roof was supposed to be rated for a snow load of 25 pounds per square foot, “large sections” of the tiles fell off, and the school system quietly sprang into action.
“Nobody knows anything about it till we saw the scaffold go up a week ago,” says Determan, who argues for the historic significance of the tile roof. The roof is not leaking, and some want to wait until the engineer’s report is done before proceeding.
So now Determan and several others want to know what the hell happened. “If the installation was deficient why is the builder not being held accountable,” he asks in his letter. “Why are taxpayers paying for this?”
We’ll update this story when we learn more.