The county school system has started to renovate the former Catonsville Elementary School for administrative offices as discussions continue over ways community groups can use space in the century-old building.
Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for the school system, said it is too soon to say which departments or functions will be moved into the Frederick Road building, but that the system has “a lot of needs for office space,” and also plans to make some space available for the community.
Bryan Sheppard, an aide in the county executive’s office who is coordinating with the county’s Parks and Recreation department on the building’s use, said he believes only baseball fields on the grounds and the gym will be available.
Community groups, the county and the school system have debated the future of the building since the elementary school was moved to a remodeled Bloomsbury Community Center building last year. The move brought the school’s capacity to 715 students, up from 405 in the old building.
Members of the Facebook group “Friends of the former Catonsville Elementary School,” with 274 followers, have urged the school system to turn the building into a multipurpose community center to replace the Bloomsbury center.
“There are things in the budget that have to be spread all over the county, and I understand that,” Char Brooks, who runs the Facebook group, said. “But in the meantime, the one thing that has happened here is that we used to have a community center, and now we don’t.”
A report published last year, which the county commissioned from architecture firm Manns Woodward Studios, recommended tearing down the old school, saying renovating and bringing the building up to building code standards would cost $19 million.
Dickerson said they did not have a cost estimate for the renovations because they are not complete. He added that the project is being funded from the facilities department budget, and is not as closely tracked as a project with designated funding, and work would be significantly less than $19 million.
The school system could end up saving money by using the building, Dickerson said, because it currently leases office space for its administration. “When we can move people into our own buildings, we do,” he said. He did not know specifically whether the Catonsville Elementary School office space will save the system money, however.
Last year the county considered demolishing the school and building a smaller community center for an estimated $3.6 million. But facing community efforts to save the building, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced that he would not seek to knock down the building during his final term in office.
The building is on the county’s Landmark Preservation Committee’s preliminary list for landmark status. If approved by the County Council, plans for exterior changes or demolition would have to be approved by the committee.
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat who represents Catonsville, said that he is not currently supporting putting the building’s landmark status up for a council vote without approval of the school system, which owns the building.
He said that if the school system were to cede control of the building to the county or if developers were eyeing it, he might consider putting its landmark status back on the table. “But right now I’m not concerned the building is going to be demolished,” he said.
Sheppard, Kamenetz’s aide, said that because there was not consensus in the community about whether to fully renovate or build anew, the school system using it for office space is a convenient stopgap to keep it from sitting vacant and deteriorating.
“This is a great compromise, in that the school system needs the space short term, and the community hasn’t decided which avenue it wants to go,” Sheppard said.
“To my understanding,” said Nick Stewart, a school board member appointed to represent Catonsville, “it’s still a matter of ongoing discussion — one needing continued community advocacy."
“Long-term,” Quirk said, the building “ would be ideal for a community center.”
The school system, however, said that seeing the office space as a short-term move is a mischaracterization.
“We have not had those discussions,” Dickerson said of the idea that they would only use the office space for a few years. "Right now we are dealing with an immediate need.”
“At this point, we are simply comfortable saying we have office space needs for the school system, and that’s where our focus is right now,” Dickerson said.
Brooks said that she would like to see more transparency from the school system about the future of the building.
“I would like a little bit more openness, and to really try to discern what exactly is the real plan,” Brooks said.
Brooks said she has approached officials about involving the community in deciding the building’s future by forming a task force.
“Now they’re finding a little money to renovate, and I’m thrilled about that,” she said. “But it’s just not an open process. The community has a right to be involved in that process."
Dickerson said the school system had spoken to various community members, but “we have not created a task force, because we need the building."
“I think we’ve been very transparent in saying we wanted to first determine the needs of the school system,” Dickerson said, adding: “Once we determined we needed office space, we were open with the community.”