As he approaches the end of his first year in office, Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance has begun to untangle the messy knot of school overcrowding left for him by his predecessors.
Even as Dance and his team are making a point to include stakeholders in the most affected communities — principally in southwest Baltimore County and the Towson area — community leaders are finding it difficult to look beyond past inadequacies and performances by the school system in addressing overcrowded schools.
"I think everybody has been willing to give Dr. Dance the benefit of the doubt," Del. Steve Lafferty, of Towson said. "At the same time, the folks who have been doing the planning for the last couple of years need to improve their game a little. It's just not been adequate, clearly, or we wouldn't find ourselves in the same position."
On Wednesday, June 12, at 6:30 p.m., at the new Carver Center, BCPS is holding a meeting to update Towson parents on the elementary school overcrowding situation. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz included 700 elementary school seats in the York Road corridor in his FY2014 budget, and some of those seats appear allocated for Towson.
Last month's meeting at Carver was the latest in nearly a decade of efforts to alleviate school overcrowding. Families at Rodgers Forge Elementary brought the overcrowding issue to BCPS's attention in 2005, said Towson Families United founder Cathi Forbes.
The school system didn't acknowledge there was a problem until 2007, when work began on a 451-seat West Towson Elementary on Ridge Ruxton's campus, as well as additions at Stoneleigh Elementary and Hampton Elementary.
All three schools will open near or over capacity in the upcoming school year. Though school officials cannot build a school on enrollment projections — only the present need — parents believe the problem could be better addressed.
In the last month, parents from elementary schools in Towson and Catonsville — where Kamenetz funded 500 elementary school seats — were invited to comment on solutions at a set of meetings. But many left frustrated at the process.
In Catonsville, one parent said the meetings have been "confusing and not clear."
China Williams — a mother from Westowne Elementary, an overcrowded school that wasn't included in either meeting — said the parents didn't get any information at the first meeting. At a second meeting, where possibilities were presented, she said the focus was on a comprehensive 10-year plan.
"It's very confusing, because they kept talking about the 500 seats (allocated in the FY14 budget), but at this second meeting they kept talking about a 10-year plan," Williams said. "A 10-year plan is great, strategic thinking is great … but immediate needs require immediate solutions."
In Towson, just one option — a new 700-seat elementary school to replace Rodgers Forge Elementary — was presented, and even though parents were asked for other options, no criteria were provided other than the property must be county-owned.
"I was not really pleased with the way the meeting at Carver unfolded, because it wasn't a situation where people got actually to have a say," Lafferty said. "The school system led people to one conclusion, and I don't think anybody went into that meeting anticipating that was going to be the case."
School officials acknowledge that frustration, though Chief Communications Officer Mychael Dickerson would not comment on the "history" before he and Dance arrived last summer.
"It's frustrating because many people will come and say, 'We want you to tell us what you're doing,'" Dance said last month at an event in Cockeysville. "Then, half of the folks will say, 'We want to continue working with you around the plan.' My belief is that you work with communities around developing the plan. … We only do that by talking to each other."
Dance said that believing that, for parents, is a matter of trust.
"Part of it is us saying something and following through on what we say," Dance said. "We said we would go through a process, we said we would engage them, and that's what we're doing. At the end of the day, they have to hold us accountable to doing that."
That engagement will continue through the summer on a soon-to-be-published website, Dickerson said.
Even though a report from GWWO Inc./Architects, the consultant contracted to evaluate the school facilities and formulate a long-term plan, won't be available until the fall, Dickerson said parents won't have wait until then for updates on the processes in Catonsville and the central corridor.
"What we hope is they'll see at the end of the process that the frustration led to them giving us input that will ultimately be part of the solution," Dickerson said.