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Balto. Co. budget would add new seats for crowded schools

FinanceBudgets and BudgetingKevin KamenetzHealth InsurancePersonal Income

Baltimore County would add classrooms for thousands of students under a budget proposal unveiled Monday by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — a plan advocates hope signals a commitment to solve the overcrowding that has plagued the school system.

"There's an acknowledgment of the number of seats needed, and there seems to be the will to fund the additional seats," said Yara Cheikh, president of the PTA at Hampton Elementary School in Towson, the county's most overcrowded school.

Kamenetz's proposal includes a $2.8 billion operating budget and a $339 million capital budget. He would not raise the county's property tax rate, which would remain flat for the 25th year in a row, and would hold the income tax rate steady for the 21st consecutive year.

His budget avoids furloughs or layoffs of public workers, but it provides no cost-of-living raises for employees.

"I'm here today to ask you to stay the course," Kamenetz told an audience that filled the County Council chambers in Towson. "It's working."

The $200 million targeted for school construction and renovations includes $51 million in state funds. Part of that would pay for at least 700 new seats in elementary schools along the York Road corridor, 700 in the Owings Mills area and at least 500 in Catonsville.

County officials said that when those plans are combined with a new 700-seat school planned for Mays Chapel and additions at Hampton, Stoneleigh and Sparks elementary schools, the county will be adding a total of more than 3,000 seats.

The Mays Chapel school has been challenged in court by residents who want the property to remain a park, but in comments prior to the budget unveiling, Kamenetz said the county is "past dealing with just Mays Chapel."

"We have the need not only to proceed with Mays Chapel, but that doesn't solve our problem," he said. "Even building the 700 seats at Mays Chapel isn't enough."

Schools along the York Road corridor are among the most crowded. According to a county report, Pot Spring Elementary in Timonium is 161 students over its rated capacity and Lutherville Elementary School is 147 students over capacity. West Towson Elementary, which opened in 2010, is 90 students above its 451-student capacity.

Hampton Elementary opened this year 255 students above its capacity, but an addition that's under way there will boost capacity to about 600 students.

Still, some fear it's not enough.

"Hampton will open overcrowded next year, Stoneleigh will open overcrowded next year, and West Towson will be more overcrowded next year, so we do need more seats in the central corridor and Towson," said Cathi Forbes, who founded Towson Families United, a group focused on schools along the York Road corridor.

Forbes said Kamenetz's plan was "the first time the long-term construction needs have been addressed. Naming the problem is the first step to solving it."

Kamenetz noted that 80 percent of the county's schools are more than 40 years old. His plan would equip all high schools with wireless Internet and fund renovations at Hereford and Pikesville high schools and Dumbarton Middle, and air conditioning at Overlea High.

The proposal also includes money for six additional police officer assignments, so that every middle and high school has a full-time officer.

Superintendent Dallas Dance said school officials would hold community meetings to "discuss and refine viable long-term strategies to address immediate overcrowding and anticipated future growth."

Also in the budget is an $8 million increase in road resurfacing over two years, to $28 million; and a 20 percent increase in social service emergency funds to help needy families with security deposits, utility bills and other expenses.

Kamenetz's proposal also includes funds for recreation projects and walking trails, as well as money to create a regional park at the Spring Grove Hospital Center site in Catonsville, improve the new Sollers Point Community Center in Turners Station and build a community center in Cockeysville.

Other projects it would fund include improvements to Gough Park in Perry Hall, rehabilitation of Rosedale Park, improvements to Battle Acre Park and a new playground at Robert E. Lee Park.

Councilman John Olszewski Sr. said he was "ecstatic" about the neighborhood projects and liked Kamenetz's focus.

"I'm glad to see that he's continuing to focus on public safety, public education and our aging infrastructure," said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat.

The plan calls for a 2.94 percent increase in spending for continuing county costs.

The County Council has the authority only to cut from the budget. Council Chairman Tom Quirk said he doesn't expect members to make significant alterations.

"In the past, the county executive has submitted such fiscally prudent budgets that we haven't found much fat to trim," said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat. "I don't think there will be any major changes."

In a briefing before the budget release, Kamenetz told reporters the county has been able to keep the tax rates flat by streamlining government operations and increasing employee productivity.

He said county government has the smallest workforce in 25 years after cutting hundreds of positions through attrition, consolidation and early retirement.

Technology also has helped workers do more with less, he said.

The county also has saved through changes to employee benefit programs.

"The No. 1 savings factor has been our aggressive reform of our employee retirement and health care costs, that we have negotiated with our employees," he said.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for April 30, and the council is scheduled to adopt the budget May 23. The budget is for the fiscal year that starts in July.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.

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