Baltimore County school superintendent proposes plan to address overcrowding

A preliminary proposal to address overcrowding in the southwest part of Baltimore County was released last week after the final of two community stakeholder meetings in the area.

The Sept. 17 proposal includes a new 700-seat elementary school at the current site of Westowne Elementary, another 700-seat school at the current site of Relay Elementary, a third 700-seat school at the current site of Catonsville Elementary or at the Bloomsbury Community Center site and a 200-seat addition to Westchester Elementary.

At the current state-rated capacity, the proposal would add a total of 978 seats to the southwest area. A decision on the current school buildings would be made after construction on the new schools is completed.

The plans come after Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance's meetings with parents and Parent Teacher Association members Aug. 21 and Sept. 17.

Parents from Hillcrest Elementary, Westowne Elementary, Relay Elementary and Halethorpe Elementary were invited by Beverly Coleman, chairwoman of the Southwest Area Education Advisory Council, to meet with Dance in an effort to increase transparency and provide a better forum for community engagement.

"I wanted to work with Beverly to make sure that every school community was represented," Dance said in a Sept. 23 interview. "We knew we wanted to have a more comprehensive proposal that we could put out on the table."

James Kitchel, president of the Hillcrest PTA, said the invitation for an open discussion with BCPS was one members of the group had been hoping for.

"We had been bugging ... them [BCPS] all summer," Kitchel said. "It [the meetings] allowed for a very targeted and intense period of discussion between BCPS, the community and the county executive's office.

"When you look at what you can achieve in this process — equitability, as little disruption as possible, improvement," he said. "It really came out as best as it could. Even based on the actual enrollment numbers, we should have some leeway for growth."

According to an email from Hillcrest about the Sept. 17 meeting, actual enrollment numbers in area schools would provide for a gain of about 560 seats.

Kitchel said that, should BCPS proceed with this plan or something similar to it, the goal is to complete all of the construction at the same time, so there would be a need for only one round of redistricting.

"I'm pretty excited about it," Dance said of the proposal. "We know there's a need for capacity issues to be addressed. We also know there's a need to make sure we upgrade and modernize our facilities."

The current proposal would do both, he said, but its execution is dependent on state and county-level funding. At this point, Dance said that seems a definite possibility.

"I know we've got full support from the county administration," Dance said. "We have to have local support to make sure we can go after state funding."

Kitchel said he hopes the transparency between BCPS and the community will continue throughout the process.

"The process was used in the way the process is meant to be used and it resulted in a good outcome," Kitchel said. "I think that, for me, the key is, is this the beginning of consistent 21st century stakeholder engagement, or is this an anomaly?

"For me, the long-term frustration has been where it looked like there were opportunities for transparency or engagement, [and] they were heretofore not being taken," he said.

Dance said BCPS plans to hold a large-scale community meeting in late October to propose a long-term plan to address the area's needs.

"I know we, as a team, did not feel quite confident that we were really wrapping our hands around long-term strategic planning," Dance said earlier this week. "I'm talking about modernizing and upgrading facilities but also marrying together capacity as well.

"I've been talking long-term strategic planning since I've been here," Dance said. "And this [proposal] matches the fact that we have capacity issues with what we want to do long-term with our infrastructure."

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