Longtime Catonsville residents question county's solution to overcrowding

While a Baltimore County solution is in the works to address overcrowded elementary schools in the southwest area, some Catonsville residents say the solution fails to address future overcrowding in local middle schools and high schools.

"Yes, we have a plan to address the elementary schools. But what is going to be done to address the issues at the middle schools and high schools in terms of ... the number of seats?" said Angela McLean, a parent of two children at Catonsville Middle, one of whom becomes a freshman at Catonsville High in the fall.

Baltimore County Public Schools will hold an input meeting Tuesday at Catonsville High School to discuss the construction timeline for the new Catonsville Elementary School at the site of the Bloomsbury Community Center, 106 Bloomsbury Ave.

Longtime Catonsville residents recall when they fought for additional middle school seats to be added to the Bloomsbury Center.

Jim Himel and David Wasmund said they remember when the building was used as a junior high school.

Both men were members of the Catonsville Community Conservation Association, a group founded in 1994 to "protect and preserve those things that make Catonsville a wonderful place to live and raise a family."

The group was part of the fight to preserve the building at 106 Bloomsbury Ave.

In 1990, the building was vacated, and over the course of the next eight years, it fell into disrepair. A committee appointed by then County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger recommended the building be converted to a community center.

Two wings of the building that had been added in 1930, were demolished.

But before the core portion of the building was torn down, the building was added to the county landmarks list. The landmark designation meant alterations to the building must be reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust before changes are made.

Himel and Wasmund expressed skepticism of the county's plan to solve overcrowding.

Both said there is a need for additional middle school seats, which could have been solved years ago if Bloomsbury had been converted into a middle school. The building had a capacity for 1,200 students.

However, not everyone sees overcrowding as a problem in local middle schools and high schools.

"We don't see any major issues with the middle school or the high school, and the real problem is in the elementary schools," said 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Catonsville, Arbutus and Lansdowne.

Quirk, who has two children in area public schools, said, "Catonsville Middle is pretty close to being at capacity, but there is capacity at Arbutus Middle for those students."

Paul Taylor, a coordinator for strategic planning at BCPS, said the office, "carefully monitors enrollment."

"We look at enrollment projections every year, and we always have a forward looking plan," Taylor said. "Right now, the largest concern is with elementary schools, but we are always closely monitoring enrollment at the middle school and high school level."

Taylor said the ways to address needs for additional seats include adjusting school boundaries, building additions and making changes to school programs.

County enrollment projections for 2014 through 2023 don't take into account the new schools being built, Taylor said.

Catonsville Middle currently has 794 students and a state capacity of 774. Arbutus Middle has 807 enrolled students and a state capacity of 1,036, according to Baltimore County Public Schools information.

The county plans to build a new 700-seat Catonsville Elementary School at the site of the current Bloomsbury Community Center, a new 700-seat school at the site of Westowne Elementary, a new 700-seat school built on the site of Relay Elementary and a 200-seat addition to Westchester Elementary.

Catonsville has 458 students with a state capacity of 405, Westowne has 610 students with a state capacity of 480, Relay has 527 students enrolled with a state capacity of 415, and Westchester has 606 students enrolled with a state capacity of 499, according to BCPS enrollment projections.

In total, 1,000 seats will be added to the four schools.

Erica Mah is part of a group called Better Together Southwest that is comprised of parents who discuss overcrowding in area schools. She said she believes the issue of overcrowded middle schools will be solved with redistricting.

"Feeder" issues will be solved if students are sent to Arbutus Middle, Mah said.

At present, students from Hillcrest, Westchester and Westowne go to Catonsville Middle. Those at Hillcrest, Westowne, Catonsville, Arbutus, Relay and Halethorpe feed into Arbutus Middle.

"As taxpayers, its irresponsible for us to put money into Catonsville Middle," said Mah, who has two children at Hillcrest Elementary, where she serves as vice president of the PTA.

Among Catonsville elementary schools, Hillcrest is the most overcrowded with 817 enrolled students and 666 seats.

Some students who attend Hillcrest under current school boundaries are expected to attend the new Catonsville Elementary when the school is built in 2016, Mah said.

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