Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99
Arbutus Lansdowne

Baltimore County school board called a learning experience

Two years from now, the southwestern portion of Baltimore County will be home to three new 700-seat elementary schools and a fourth that will have expanded to become a 750-seat elementary school.

Those changes will be made to address a growing population in the southwest area with input from the community, a plan put forth by School Superintendent Dallas Dance, funds provided by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the support of two local school board members, George Moniodis and Mike Bowler.

As county students return to school this week, many changes are on the horizon. A new technology pilot program, a new Spanish pilot program for fourth graders and a plan to ease overcrowding will be underway this year.

Moniodis and Bowler said they expect overcrowding to be an ongoing problem locally as more people move to the southwest area thanks in part to the good reputation some schools in the area have earned.

Moniodis said the board established a program to improve the infrastructure of 10 percent of the county's 173 schools and centers each year. He said he expects that within the next five years that project will be complete.

The schools with poor infrastructure that lack air conditioning will be updated first, said Moniodis.

"I want our children to be comfortable," Moniodis said. "Myself and my colleagues were all mystified when we came on board about the lack of air conditioning."

"Baltimore County got way behind in air conditioning and now they're catching up," said Bowler, who represents District 1.

In the plan is the conversion of the Bloomsbury Community Center site to a new 700-seat Catonsville Elementary School. The current building on Frederick Road lacks air conditioning.

The plan also includes the replacement of Relay Elementary and Westowne Elementary, both without air conditioning, with new 700-seat buildings that will be air-conditioned.

Westchester Elementary, which is air-conditioned, will receive a 200-seat addition through the plan to accommodate additions to an enrollment that was more than 100 students over state capacity, according to the school's website.

A 700-seat replacement school for Lansdowne Elementary, which has no air conditioning, is also part of the Capital Area Improvement Plan posted in April by county public school system, although it is the last in line to receive funding.

Bowler cited studies of school size and said he thinks any elementary school with more than 700 students is too large.

"I think the ideal elementary school is 300, 400 maybe," Bowler said, adding that the county has limited funds, so building schools of that limited size aren't plausible.

Moniodis said he feels very good about the progress the school system has made as far as addressing infrastructure issues, but sees a need for more work in the future.

"Mike and I will be looking at how these elementary schools will impact middle schools and high schools," Moniodis said. "We are looking at a new high school for all these students in the Catonsville and Arbutus area."

Moniodis said there are no definite plans, but he expects that the new school isn't likely to be built in Lansdowne.

Moniodis is a member-at-large on the school board, while Bowler, 73, is the representative of District 1, which includes Catonsville, Arbutus, Lansdowne, Relay and Baltimore Highlands.

Moniodis serves as chairman of the contracts and buildings committee, while Bowler is chairman of the curriculum committee.

"You've got to be completely dedicated to the task at hand to serve on the board," said Moniodis, 72, who resides in Woodbridge Valley with his wife Lillian. "It's not a position or appointment that you skip the majority of meetings that you have to go to."

The school board has 12 members, one from each of the seven councilmanic districts, four at-large members and a student member.

In addition to regular meetings during the school year, it also met throughout the summer to develop and evaluate school policies in areas including: the school budget, construction, personnel, property, enrollment, attendance and instruction.

The board oversees the third largest school system in Maryland and the 25th largest in the country with 173 schools, programs and centers that serve 108,376 students, according to the school system's website. The fiscal year 2015 budget is $1.6 billion.

"It's like a big business — probably the fifth or sixth largest in the county," said Moniodis, a commercial real estate agent at Coldwell Banker in downtown Catonsville.

Moniodis and Bowler were both appointed to the board in July 2010 by Gov. Martin O'Malley to serve five-year terms.

Moniodis, who also has been appointed to the Maryland Citizen Advisory Council for the Red Line and the Greektown CDC Board of Directors, said the lengthy interview process for the school board position told him it "would be a no-nonsense kind of appointment."

"After meeting some of the school board members and talking to them I liked what I saw, and I'm happy I got it," said Moniodis, a product of the Baltimore City school system.

He has served as vice president of the school board of Seton Keough High School, the all-girls Catholic school on Caton Avenue where his daughters are alumnae.

"Being on the school board and being at the [Seton Keough] board we have the same issues," Moniodis said.

Bowler, who grew up in Montana, taught for one year at a New York public school after graduating from Columbia University in 1963.

Retired after a career that included 41 years in journalism, he has lived in Catonsville for 18 years with his wife Margaret Bowler, a retired CCBC Catonsville professor and financial aid officer.

Both agree that there are exciting new initiatives coming soon from BCPS, such as a fourth grade Spanish pilot program and the "Lighthouse" pilot program which will integrate teaching with technology. The programs will be introduced in 10 selected schools this year, including Lansdowne Elementary and Edmondson Heights Elementary.

Although they enjoy the impact they have on public schools, the job also comes with its challenges.

"Sometimes I feel frustrated because whatever you try to do, there is always someone who will be unhappy," Bowler said.

His favorite part of the job is attending graduating ceremonies and visiting schools.

"He's been the most visible board member — he actually makes it a point to visit schools," said Lisa Dingle, principal of Relay Elementary School.

Moniodis said the greatest challenge the board faces each year is finding funding because the school system is not a separate legal entity from the county government, and must receive approval from the county executive. All counties in Maryland operate that way, but many other states have separate school districts with the ability to collect taxes.

"The budget has to be prudent and exact so that we can perform our mission — so that the teachers and staff have the tools to educate and that the students receive their education," he said.

Neither man plans to run when the school board switches from its current state as an appointed school board to a partially elected board in 2018.

Both men are opposed to the hybrid board.

As for the future of Baltimore County public schools, Bowler said he expects it will, "become more and more majority minority, which presents public challenges."

"But since I am an optimistic and an idealist, I think we can overcome it," he said. "And if we do overcome it, I'd like to play a part in it before I check out."


Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun