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Dulaney High project bumped in Baltimore County budget plan

Dulaney High School parents told Baltimore County they wanted a new school building for their children, not the $40 million renovation officials proposed.

Yesterday, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz made clear they'll get neither.

Kamenetz released a nearly $2 billion budget proposal for the coming year that includes millions of dollars for other school construction projects, but none for Dulaney. The Democrat had warned parents he felt the renovation was the best option for the school system and wasn't happy when the school board declined to endorse the project last month.

Kamenetz didn't mention the omission when he announced his budget Thursday, but confirmed that the money for Dulaney has been transferred to other school projects, including a new middle school in the booming northeastern part of the county.

"We've been talking to the Dulaney parents for two years, and they were well aware of the facts," Kamenetz said in an interview. "The facts are that we would love to build a brand-new school, but this is not a school where we would be adding seats, so it's not like we're gaining capacity for that substantial investment."

Overall, the budget plan holds county property and income tax rates steady — they haven't changed in decades — and funds a number of school renovations, artificial turf fields and road resurfacing projects. And it advances plans for a technology upgrade to the county's 911 center.

The budget also continues funding to place body cameras on all uniformed police officers by this fall, and provides a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for county employees.

"We present a budget that continues the progress of the past six years," Kamenetz said in a budget presentation in the County Council chambers. "We plan ahead and budget conservatively, so that we can invest in what's important to the people who live and do business here."

Funding for the school system makes up more than half of the county's overall budget, and includes money for programs and facilities.

Last month, the school board voted not to go forward with a $40 million renovation of Dulaney after parents said they wanted a new school built.

Kamenetz had backed the renovation, and in an interview said he won't replace Dulaney despite parents' belief the school is in such poor shape that a new building is required. The school was built in 1964 and expanded in 1999.

He said it doesn't make sense to spend $130 million for a replacement school that doesn't add new classroom seats, when a less expensive renovation would suffice.

"This is the fiscal reality we're in," he said.

County Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican who represents the Dulaney area, said he believes the opposite is true — that a renovation would be "throwing good money after bad."

"You're going to end up with a product that's obsolete the day the doors are open," Kach said.

Some parents said Thursday they are disappointed, but not surprised, by the budget decision.

"It feels like we were dismissed," said Jennifer Tarr, whose daughter is an 11th-grader at Dulaney. She said much of the renovation would have gone toward air conditioning and replacing outdated pipes, with little money left over for modernizing of the school.

Yara Cheikh, another Dulaney parent who also has three younger children, remains hopeful a solution can be worked out instead of simply dropping Dulaney off the priority list.

"We hope that the county administration and [the school system] will work toward a more comprehensive solution, one where the spending parallels what was spent on other school construction projects across the county," she said.

Meanwhile, renovation of three other aging high schools — Lansdowne, Woodlawn and Patapsco in Dundalk — move forward in the budget plan.

The money previously allocated to Dulaney will be used to accelerate other school projects, including a 200- to 300-seat addition at Pine Grove Middle School in Parkville and planning for a 1,500-seat middle school in the northeast part of the county.

Those two projects please council members David Marks and Cathy Bevins, who represent parts of the northeastern area.

Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said a new middle school in the Perry Hall area "has been my top priority in the northeast. It's a very large school, it has a lot of extra capacity. It's a very important project."

Bevins, a Democrat from Middle River, agreed, saying the new school "can't come soon enough."

The budget also accelerates replacement buildings for two elementary schools in Dundalk — Colgate and Berkshire.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, noted that a replacement for Dundalk Elementary also remains on track, meaning that area will essentially see three new elementary schools in three years.

"I don't think that's ever happened in Baltimore County, so I'm very pleased with that," he said.

Other school spending includes money for additional teachers for English language learners and special education students.

Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance praised the overall allocation, and in a statement called Kamenetz "a strong and supportive partner in providing an equitable education to all students in Baltimore County."

Dance said the budget "funds critical initiatives and programs that will continue the momentum we have built during the last five years." He did not address the Dulaney issue.

Kamenetz, who is considering a run for governor next year, said the county has made progress emerging from the "great recession."

He touted development at the former steel mill in Sparrows Point, growth in downtown Towson, recovering property values and retention of employers including McCormick Spice, CareFirst and the Social Security Administration.

"This steady growth builds our tax base so that we can preserve our quality of life while keeping tax rates stable," he said.

The property tax rate has remained unchanged for 29 years: $1.10 per $100 of assessed value, meaning property taxes on a home worth $300,000 would be $3,300.

The local income tax rate remains at 2.83 percent, as it has been for 25 years.

"For a jurisdiction of our size and complexity, that is a remarkable achievement," Kamenetz said.

While the tax rates have remained unchanged, the amount of tax money collected by the county has increased over the years as property values and incomes have risen.

Kach said the county should actually decrease the tax rates, a move he said could help senior citizens.

"I'm very concerned about our homeowners, and my view is that property taxes are the most regressive tax out there," he said.

The proposed general fund budget guides government spending for the year starting July 1. The $1.993 billion proposal is slightly smaller than the current year's budget.

The general fund gets money primarily from property and income taxes. A little more than 10 percent of that money, $205 million, is put into the county's fund balance or "rainy day" fund.

When state aid, federal aid, and water and sewer payments are added to the county's general fund, the total county budget is $3.5 billion.

Members of the County Council will scrutinize the budget over the next month, but have a limited ability to make changes. Last year, the council cut about $200,000 — less than one-tenth of one percent — from the proposed budget.

Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, chairs the county's spending affordability committee, which sets guidelines for county spending and borrowing. He said Kamenetz's proposal is "well within the spending affordability guidelines and it's fiscally responsible."

Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, expressed her support for the budget, noting that her district would receive $7 million in road resurfacing projects.

"That's what people care about," she said.

A public hearing on the budget will be held at 6 p.m. April 25 at the Historic Courthouse in Towson. The council is scheduled to vote on the proposal May 25.

pwood@baltsun.com

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