'Do the right thing': Franchot tours Lansdowne High as officials prepare to unveil renovation plans

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot toured Lansdowne High School Thursday as a show of support for those who say the school needs a new building, not a renovated one.

Guided by Principal Ken Miller and technology teacher Jim Melia, Franchot inspected cracked floors, bowing walls and level changes that make it impossible for a student in a wheelchair to navigate hallways.

“They’re looking at fixing this?” Franchot said with a hand on a cracked, bowing wall. “Good luck.”

Lansdowne High has long been plagued by cracked floors, bursting pipes, brown water in drinking fountains and a sinking foundation. A 2014 facilities assessment ranked Lansdowne as the worst high school building in the county.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s office says the county cannot afford to construct a new building, and has proposed an extensive renovation instead.

Advocates for a new building say Lansdowne’s building, where 1,300 students attend classes, has problems that a renovation cannot address at all.

Franchot, Maryland’s chief tax collector, agreed, saying spending money on renovating a school in Lansdowne’s condition seemed “wasteful” of taxpayer dollars.

On Franchot’s tour, Melia, who teaches pre-engineering classes, pointed out cracks and bowing walls, saying they indicate a shifting foundation.

When the school replaced a set of windows recently, Melia said, the windows had to be custom built, “because nothing was straight.”

Franchot also asked Miller on the tour about the school’s several level changes and whether a renovation would allow disabled students to navigate the many sets of stairs it takes to walk through Lansdowne’s hallways.

Currently, if a student is injured or in a wheelchair, Miller said they have to take online courses or be moved to another high school. Miller said that the renovation design includes elevators and wheelchair lifts.

“This nonsense that the school has to take a renovation or wait and get nothing, that’s over,” Franchot said. “This is a basic issue of fairness.”

The comptroller sits on the three-member Board of Public Works, which authorizes state money for county school construction programs. Last month, Baltimore County school officials asked the state to partially fund a $60 million renovation for Lansdowne.

The board, which also includes the governor and treasurer, will hold a final vote on whether to approve the county’s requests in May. Franchot declined to say whether he would vote against the renovation.

Last month, Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan questioned school officials about Lansdowne with what interim superintendent Verletta White, who also toured Lansdowne this week, described as a “harsh tone.”

The comptroller followed at least 10 other government officials who toured Lansdowne this week, including state delegates, a state senator, school board members and a candidate for county executive.

School system officials, including Verletta White and the area’s school board representative, Nick Stewart, toured the building on Tuesday.

That group was accompanied by an engineer from the firm Rubeling and Associates, which is drafting a design plan for a $60 million Lansdowne renovation — Stewart said it would be the most expensive renovation the county has ever done.

The plan will be unveiled to the school board Nov. 21. The board rejected a plan for a $30 million renovation in March, saying it would not go far enough.

Don Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who has said the county will fund a renovation but not a new school, said the engineer was “crystal clear” that he was not concerned about the structural integrity of the building.

Mohler said that the renovation being presented this month is the only fiscally responsible way to address Lansdowne’s problems. He added that Franchot’s criticism comes at a time when the state owes Baltimore County $170 million promised for school construction projects.

He said that while funding for a new school could take 15 years, funding for a renovation is available now.

Stewart said that while the proposed renovation is expensive, a new school could cost twice as much. At $110 million to $140 million, Stewart said a new school could take up the county’s entire annual construction budget.

Stewart said he and the school system organized Tuesday’s tour in order to have a “substantive dialogue outside the realm of a high-level game of campaign politics.” Franchot filed for re-election on Oct. 5.

Franchot reiterated his promise to make sure Lansdowne gets a new school, but declined to say specifically what actions he will take on the Board of Public Works to make that happen.

“I’m not committed as to actions,” he said. “I’m just saying do the right thing.”

Miller said he would welcome a renovation or a replacement, but “we don't want to be put on hold.” He expressed concern that political fighting would delay a decision.

For now, Miller said he is focused on working around the building’s maintenance problems to educate students.

“If an issue occurs, we make a couple of choices and we move on,” Miller said. “It’s never ‘we can’t teach today.’ ”

When Franchot asked Miller where he stood on the debate, he said “we support any advocate for our Vikings,” the school’s team name.

“Well, I’m an advocate with a big bite,” Franchot replied.

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