Controversy simmers as Lansdowne High renovation design is debated

Parents sparred with public officials this week as the Baltimore County school board considered a new design for a controversial renovation of Lansdowne High School.

Warped walls, brown water, burst pipes and a sinking foundation are just some of the problems reported in the building, built in 1963. A 2014 school system report found that it was the worst high school facility in the county.

County officials are moving forward with plans for a renovation, which at $60 million would be the most expensive renovation ever in the county. A motion by board member Ann Miller to delay the renovation’s progress failed.

Some people, including parents, teachers and Comptroller Peter Franchot, say renovating such a dilapidated building is a waste of money. Dayana Bergman, an advocate for a new building whose child is slated to attend Lansdowne next year, said 18 people joined her at the Tuesday night board meeting wearing blue shirts emblazoned with “Build a new Lansdowne High School.”

“It’s going to take an awful lot to convince me that a renovation is going to be good enough for a building that’s in that poor shape,” Sharon Saroff, whose children recently graduated from Lansdowne, said before the meeting.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has long maintained that there is not enough money in the county budget to pay for a new high school, which officials estimate would cost twice as much as a renovation.

After Kamenetz proposed planning funds in September for two new high schools in the northern part of the county, however, Lansdowne residents accused his administration of prioritizing other areas over their own. That decision was made, Kamenetz’s office said, to address overcrowding in the booming northeast part of the county.

Lansdowne’s enrollment is slightly below the building’s capacity of 1,420 students. According to county enrollment projections, it is expected to be over capacity by the year 2021, one year after the renovation is projected to be complete.

Franchot, who sits on the three-member Board of Public Works, which authorizes the state’s portion of school construction funding, said during a school construction hearing that Lansdowne’s deterioration is not a question of funding, but instead “a question of leadership.”

The design, prepared by the company Rubeling and Associates, was presented to the Board of Education during a two-hour session that went an hour over the scheduled time. Slides containing an outline of that design were released online last week.

The presentation came after the board rejected the design for a less extensive $30 million renovation earlier this year.

County Councilman Tom Quirk praised the design, calling it a “significant improvement” from the first design. Quirk said the design would fix the building’s problems adequately, and that with the county’s capital budget stretched thin, the renovation shows Lansdowne is getting substantial attention and resources.

“When some state elected official says that Lansdowne is being ignored or forgotten,” Quirk said before the meeting, referring to Franchot, “The facts couldn’t speak more loudly 180 degrees the opposite.”

Advocates for a new school, however, have criticized the design on social media. Lily Rowe, an advocate for a new school who is running for a county school board seat in another district, called the added features in the new design — including a new glass lobby and renovations to the stadium — “all glitter, no substance.”

Saroff said the design included some features that would benefit the school, such as new dance and recording studios that would help build the school’s performing arts magnet program.

But despite those benefits, Saroff said the renovation as posted online would cost taxpayers a significant amount of money while still leaving important issues unaddressed, including accessibility and structural issues.

“If you’re doing all of these things, why aren’t you building a new building?” Saroff said.

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