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Board postpones verdict on Mays Chapel school site, sets date for public hearing

Neighbors decry potential loss of park for 'wrong school in the wrong place'

By Jon Meoli, jmeoli@tribune.com

3:02 PM EST, March 7, 2012

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Only 10 of the more than 100 county residents at the Baltimore County Board of Education meeting — nearly all of which came to oppose placement of a new 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel — were allowed to speak Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, in response to that strong community showing — and on the advice of legal counsel — the board voted Tuesday to postpone a final vote on the site selection, and host a public hearing on the matter first.

Yet the board did give the site 'preliminary approval' — a step members said is needed to trigger the hearing.

"Under the rules as we have been advised by our counsel, it is necessary for this board to give preliminary approval in order for the board to schedule a public hearing for the (Mays Chapel) elementary school site," said Board of Education President Lawrence Schmidt during the meeting.

That public hearing will begin at 6 p.m. Monday, March 19, at Loch Raven High School, 1212 Cowpens Avenue, in Towson, and will allow residents to voice their opinion on the proposed school, which would be built on 20 acres of county-and school system-owned land off West Padonia Road in Mays Chapel.

Officials say the school is needed to alleviate overcrowding in seven elementary schools in the York Road corridor. School system projections suggest that by 2014, when the a new school could potentially be completed, eight schools in the York Road corridor would have a combined students population of 4,370 students — or 893 students over state-rated capacity.

On Tuesday, the school board heard passionate testimony from both sides.

The public comment portion of the evening began with a fiery testimony from Yara Cheikh, a Hampton Elementary parent and member of Towson Families United who said was "more than dismayed" to see opposition to the school.

Later Cathi Forbes, chairwoman of the group, Towson Families United, also spoke in favor of the school. Forbes said that throughout Baltimore County, schools and neighborhoods coexist, and there's no reason they can't do the same in Mays Chapel.

But Forbes drew yells of disapproval from the Mays Chapel crowd when she suggested residents were standing in opposition to the education of Baltimore County's children.

Many of the residents said they understand a school needs to be built; they just don't believe it should be built in Mays Chapel.

Marvin Tenberg, vice president of the Falls Road Community Association, said the organization believes it's "the wrong school in the wrong place."

"We believe schools should be located to serve families in and around their community, not where they will require busing or, very often, families driving them to school," Tenberg said.

Residents lamented the potential loss of the area's only open space, and spoke of the traffic congestion in the area, which they believe will only be made worse by a school on the property.

Some said no more than 10 or 11 elementary-aged children live in the surrounding neighborhood.

"I can tell you that in that community, you do not have families either in the town houses or condos whose children would be going to that school," said Gail Purnell, a Mays Chapel North resident.

Lewis Madison's concern was for safety. He said residents used to be able to walk on Padonia Road, but now, "it's like walking next to (Interstate) 83."

However indirectly, the board only addressed the concerns of one of the 10 speakers.

Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Council of Community Associations, lamented that just like when the board tried to build a special-needs school in Mays Chapel several years ago, community input was not involved in the process.

"This, naturally, engendered a lot of fears," Rockel said. "This is not the way that things should be done."

Though nothing is final, matching funds for the school — which would match potential state funds — have been included in County Executive Kevin Kamenetz' 2013 capital budget.

The issue of the new school has not only creates sides within the community, but apparently on the County Council as well. Third District County Councilman Todd Huff has sided with his Mays Chapel constituents in opposing the school proposed location.

But Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, who represents the 2nd District, and 5th District Councilman David Marks sent a letter to Schmidt on Tuesday expressing the support for the school.

"We know the neighbors at Mays Chapel have sincere intentions, and we respect their passion for their community," said the letter from Marks and Almond. "At the same time, we believe it is in the best interest of school children throughout north central Baltimore County for an elementary school to be built as quickly and efficiently as possible."

NOTE: This story has been updated with the location of the March 19 public hearing.