Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance faced questions last week from the Baltimore County Planning Board and Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot regarding the controversial central area elementary school construction plan.
"The reason we're asking the questions is before the county and state spend $31 million when all we're hearing is community upset about the scenario, we want to make sure we've explored every option for spending the right way," said Scott Jenkins, a member of the Baltimore County Planning Board.
"No one is against doing something in the central corridor to alleviate overcrowding," he said. "I want to make sure what we're doing is best in the long term for all of Baltimore County."
The plan calls for a 189-seat addition to Cromwell Valley Elementary, and the transition of that school from a countywide magnet to a neighborhood school; the renovation of the former Loch Raven Elementary site to house a 600-seat school for the Halstead Academy students; and the renovation of Halstead Academy for a future countywide magnet school.
Leaders in the Loch Raven Village area, where the Loch Raven Elementary building serves as a community center, have met with several elected officials about the issue since it was announced in August and approved in November. Councilman David Marks, who represents the 5th District including Towson and Parkville, met with Jenkins, whom he appointed, and community leaders in late January to discuss their issues.
On Tuesday, Feb. 4, the Planning Board was briefed by BCPS officials about its capital budget requests. Jenkins used the occasion to spend nearly 30 minutes questioning Superintendent Dallas Dance about the plan.
In an interview following the meeting, Jenkins said that given the lack of communication with other groups, he was concerned the Halstead community was not being represented and could be harmed by moving the school from Hillendale. Dance has regularly cited a survey of Halstead parents that showed overwhelming support of the plan.
Jenkins also questioned why, if the plan was to establish a new magnet school in the area, improvements couldn't be made to Halstead Academy to allow its students to stay there, and the magnet school could be built at Loch Raven Elementary.
A day later, Dance traveled to Annapolis for a hearing on their capital budget requests before the state Board of Public Works.
The board, which includes Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, spent several minutes on the central area plan when other projects from other jurisdictions were pitched without scrutiny.
"It seems that we're relieving overcrowding by reopening one school, one which hasn't been used as a school for many decades, in order to create 600 additional seats," Franchot said. "But in so doing, we're also closing another elementary school that currently enrolls about 500 seats. The issue is overcrowded facilities. Why wouldn't we reopen Loch Raven (Elementary), keep Halstead open as an all-hands-on-deck solution?"
Dance said the plan was meant both to capture the most amount of seats and offer more magnet choices for parents.
The Board of Public Works deferred the central area funding in its first round of funding, citing the need for feasibility studies, and a need to better understand the enrollment justification regarding Halstead Academy and its future magnet program, said David Lever, executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC).
The IAC funds projects over several months, so the central area money could still come through on the state level. On the county level, Jenkins said the Planning Board will vote on March 6. He said he is inclined to ask the board to support money for central area projects, but trying to "figure out a better way" to accomplish it. The capital budget will then go to the County Council.
BCPS Chief Communications Officer Mychael Dickerson said in an email Monday that the school system doesn't view the questioning as pushback.
"Each group gave us input and feedback for consideration," Dickerson said. "For the Board of Public Works, Dr. Lever indicated that as we move forward we will need to provide information on what the program will be at the current Halstead building once it becomes a school system magnet. We are beginning the process now, and we look forward to working with all stakeholders including these groups going forward."
Still, two Baltimore County Council members that represent the area are looking for alternatives. Marks and Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, whose 6th District stretches into the Towson area, met with Dance last Monday to discuss other options.
Marks and Bevins proposed that improvements be made to Cromwell Valley and Halstead as planned, but instead of moving Halstead students to Loch Raven, adding onto Pleasant Plains or Oakleigh Elementary to provide seats for that area.
Dance wrote in a letter to the council members following the meeting that while the meeting was "very productive," the alternative did not align with the idea that BCPS is "looking, where possible, to build new 21st century learning environments instead of additions."
Marks said he still wanted some recourse for the entire Loch Raven corridor.
"While I applaud any effort to improve the Hillendale community, I also represent" families up and down the Loch Raven Boulevard corridor," he said in a statement. "That's what I think Councilwoman Bevins and I would prefer — a plan that also addresses Pleasant Plains Elementary School, which serves most of Loch Raven Village and Knettishall but is completely left out of the current proposal."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun