Baltimore County hires consultant to assess facilities needs

The Baltimore County school system has hired a local architecture firm to help document its long-term school facilities needs, following a similar strategy the city school system used to generate a $2.4 billion plan and secure some of that funding from the General Assembly.

The county school board entered into a $500,000 contract with GWWO Inc./Architects last month to help take an inventory of the second-oldest school infrastructure in the state. The county's school buildings suffer from overcrowding and a lack of air conditioning, and its overall needs are estimated to be at least $1.7 billion.

In a letter Wednesday to the state's Board of Public Works, schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said the county hired the company in "an exciting undertaking," adding it was "not the easy path. We could continue to simply address single facility issues year after year."

Dance initially intended for the district's chief operating officer to lead an in-house comprehensive study, and the consultant was brought in as the process got under way, according to his spokesman, who added that Dance monitored the city's plan as it made its way through the General Assembly.

The General Assembly approved a $1 billion plan that will pay for about 15 new city schools and renovate about 35 others over the next six years, after the city paid $1 million to Jacobs Project Management to assess and outline the needs of every school building in Baltimore.

The Jacobs assessment laid the foundation for a 10-year plan that would close 26 buildings, end or relocate 29 programs, and renovate or rebuild 136 facilities.

"Not unlike our colleagues in Baltimore City and in communities across the nation experiencing similar challenges with their physical infrastructure, we are at a crossroads," Dance wrote in the letter.

"We have the opportunity to move beyond simply responding to a crisis and near-term challenges and to develop a long term capital program that will ensure that an appropriate learning environment is provided to every student, in every school, and in every community in Baltimore County."

According to David Lever, who oversees the state's public school construction program, the county is expecting the results of its facilities assessment in June.

He also said the county was making progress on its air conditioning needs, with projects slated this year raising the number of schools with central air to at least 110 of 169 buildings.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a member of the public works board, lauded the county's move, saying he hoped a comprehensive plan would tackle all of its needs.

"That's a very good gesture," Franchot said. "As much as we like to see some schools moving forward, the question for the public is 'how did they get picked.'

"It's a bitter pill to swallow if you think that politics is making these decisions, if it's your kid who's suffering in a classroom with very little relief in sight."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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