Community center site an option for elementary school in Catonsville

The property at 106 Bloomsbury Ave. in Catonsville has a long history of many different uses. It opened as a high school in 1924, converted to use as a middle school from 1954 to 1990 and then to a community center in 1998.

The building could undergo yet another transformation in the next two years.

Community members will meet with representatives from the Baltimore County Board of Education Thursday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m. at Catonsville High School to discuss plans for the 500 new elementary school seats allocated in the county's fiscal year 2014 budget.

This week, county representatives will summarize the community input from an earlier forum at the high school May 8, much of which centered around using the county-owned Bloomsbury property.

Cathy Allie, assistant superintendent in Zone 2, which includes the southwest portion of the county, said Bloomsbury is a definite possibility for the new seats.

"If we're looking for something new, instead of doing an addition, we have to look at property that we own, otherwise it would be a long, litigious process," Allie said of the 12.2 acres owned by the Baltimore County Board of Education on Bloomsbury Avenue.

"We did show it as a possibility and it's got a lot of land on that property," Allie said. "The hurdle with Bloomsbury is that it is a historical building."

The existing structure was added to the Baltimore County Historical Landmarks Booklet in 1998, meaning the building is currently protected from demolition in order to build a new school, one of the many suggestions at the May 15 meeting.

The 57,000 square-foot building has grown since it first opened. In 1930, two end wings were added to the original structure. Two additions were built in the 1950s.

It stood vacant for eight years in the 1990s before then-County Executive Dutch Ruppersburger issued an executive order demolishing all portions of the building built after 1925 in order to transform it into a community center.

Allie said there would be ways to work with the property in order to build at the Bloomsbury site, but that it would be tricky.

"It's so old, we would really have to update it for it to be a 21st century learning environment," Allie said.

"The money that you would put into it to upgrade it would be not the best, exactly," she said. "I think the land is definitely feasible, but we will have to work with that historical part."

"I guess, theoretically, you could leave that building there and then explore the other 12 acres," she said.

She said additions or added mobile trailers to existing elementary schools would not be a smart decision for the new seats.

"I don't think it would be in the best interest to add on an addition," Allie said. "The schools are overcrowded and the ideal size that we're looking at for an elementary school, that doesn't seem like it would be a good idea."

First District Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Catonsville, said a lot of ideas are being considered.

"One of the ideas is looking at maybe taking Catonsville Middle School and changing it back to an elementary school," he said.

That would mean keeping the historic structure at Bloomsbury, building an addition there and making that a middle school, he said.

Quirk said that idea addresses the fact that, because Catonsville elementary schools are so crowded right now, the area's middle schools will become crowded as those students age.

"The fact of the matter is, this is a problem that's going to get worse and worse over the next couple years," Quirk said.

"And so we have to come up with a longer term solution," he said. "My philosophy is that a mobile trailer or an added mobile trailer is not a long-term solution."

He also stressed that the process is not immediate.

"This is not something that's going to be built overnight even under the best circumstances," Quirk said. "I think it's going to require even a bigger investment than what was originally thought."

Catonsville resident and former 1st District Councilwoman Berchie Manley said addressing crowding down the line is even more important than building a new elementary school now.

"I think Bloomsbury should be reopened as a middle school and certainly the school that is now serving as Catonsville Middle School could be reopened as an elementary school, which is what it was intended to be," Manley said.

There are 774 students at Catonsville Middle, a total that matches its capacity.

All five area elementary schools have enrollments over their designated capacity. Hillcrest is 149 students over, Johnnycake is 92, Westchester is 91, Westowne is 71 and Catonsville is 34.

"There may be overcrowding in the future because these older communities are seeing a transition from older citizens, like I am," the 84-year-old said.

The population shift that is crowding the elementary schools will eventually be felt in middle and high schools, Manley said, and those students will not want to be separated from their friends by potential redistricting.

"The children at Catonsville Elementary, at Hillcrest (Elementary), all of these parents want their children to go to Catonsville Middle," she said.

"There's a sense of security there. When you tear them away from their friends, they're upset by it," she said.

"It's absolutely a political decision as to where the seats are going to be placed and certainly Catonsville is entitled to have money spent where we can have a new middle school," Manley said.

Manley was one of a group of Catonsville parents who attempted to prevent the demolition of the Bloomsbury wings in the early 1990s.

"The people are recognizing that a mistake was made about 18 years ago," she said of closing Bloomsbury as a middle school.

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