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News Maryland Baltimore County Towson

No accord on reopening Loch Raven Elementary

Representatives from the Loch Raven Village and the Knettishall communities emerged from a meeting Friday with Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance as strident as ever in their opposition to a plan calling for reopening a school at the site of the former Loch Raven Elementary despite assurances that a revised plan addresses some of their concerns.

"We heard their feedback and aside from just not doing the school, which would be their ultimate goal, we adjusted our thinking of what it should look like based on what they said to us," Dance said in an interview after the meeting.

Community leaders said the changes — which involve expanding the proposed school to allow neighborhood children to attend and retaining some of its current community center functions — are not concessions but "self-preservation" moves to ensure the state funds the project, according to community member Jason Garber.

"This should not be taking place in the first place," said Garber, a Loch Raven Village resident who is part of a committee formed to oppose the plan. . "Loch Raven Elementary should not be used in the manner Baltimore County Public Schools intends."

Dance and his staff members met face-to-face for the first time Friday with community representatives, including Garber. The community previously registered their disapproval in several venues, including public hearings before the school board.

Dance described the Friday meeting as "respectful," and the reception to the proposal as "lukewarm.

"Their overall thing is they don't want a school, and I shared with them that I get they don't want that, and I can't necessarily help them with that," Dance said. "But if there are ways we can look at strengthening the current proposal, let me know. We made these two adjustments based on the suggestions they gave us."

The adjustments came to a three-part plan decided on in November, when the Baltimore County School Board sent its funding request package to the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC).

The plan included a 289-seat addition and renovation at Cromwell Valley Elementary, 500 seats in a renovated school at the site of the closed Loch Raven Elementary site to house the population of Halstead Academy, and the remodeling of Halstead for future use as a magnet school.

The county school system arrived at the overcrowding solutions after a year-long public input process that began with Towson-area families in May 2013. Building a new Rodgers Forge Elementary and opening a school at the site of the Bykota Senior Center in Towson were explored, but when the process resumed in August after a summer break, the Loch Raven-Cromwell Valley-Halstead plan emerged.

Loch Raven Village residents spoke out against the proposal, arguing they were never consulted until the proposal had already been recommended to the school board. Residents protested outside the Nov. 5 school board meeting, before the board voted to approve the state capital budget request that included the Loch Raven school. The school building, which is on the county's historic register, closed in 1982 and currently houses dozens of community and recreational programs.

Changes were allowed to the original IAC request as long as the total number of seats to be added remained consistent, Dance said.

The two changes presented to community leaders Friday stem from the two largest complaints by community leaders about the plan, Dance said. Residents were concerned that redistricting the Halstead Academy's population to Loch Raven would mean there wouldn't be room for children in the neighborhood to attend the school. Community members also wanted community services to continue at that building.

Dance said 100 seats would be transferred from the Cromwell Valley addition and added to the Loch Raven school to make room for neighborhood children, who, according to the Baltimore County Public Schools website, would come from Oakleigh and Pleasant Plains elementaries. Space would also be provided after construction for some of the community programs to continue, Dance said.

"The easiest way to look at it is [as] a 600-seat school, but there will be space within the facility" for the community programs, Dance said. "As we renovate the current site, we can make sure the programs are still available at the new site as well."

Garber said he wasn't sure how any of the changes brought county schools closer to its stated goal of adding 500 seats to the overcrowded Towson area. Around 500 students that already attend Halstead means many of the 600 new seats at Loch Raven are spoken for. Garber said the 189 new seats at Cromwell Valley, plus the creation of a new catchment zone, could force Cromwell's magnet students out and back into other schools.

Other updates to the proposal posted on the BCPS website Friday include a glimpse at Cromwell's future. The update says the school will become a neighborhood magnet that draws exclusively from a catchment zone beginning in August 2016, when construction is completed. All Cromwell Valley students from outside the catchment zone will be allowed to stay until fifth grade. For both Cromwell Valley and the school at Loch Raven, redistricting would begin in 2015. Halstead would not reopen until 2017.

Dance said other issues raised at the meeting, such as maintaining Loch Raven Elementary's historic status and studying its traffic impact, would be addressed as they are for any construction project.

The entire property was added to the county Historic Landmarks List in 2007 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission after Councilman David Marks nominated the building. Marks now represents the area but at the time was vice chairman of the Baltimore County Historic Trust. Marks said the County Council would have to remove it from the landmarks list for construction on the site.

"The entire campus is a landmark," Marks said. "You can have some negotiation there. I don't mind removing newer parts of the building, but the (original) 1948 structure, I think, needs to stay."

Despite the school system's revisions, Gary Herwig, president of the Associates of Loch Raven Village, said the meeting was held "way too late to enact any kind of change."

"It doesn't solve anything," Herwig said. Dance has "got his agenda, and it's not our agenda. … He's viewing it from a Baltimore County Public Schools perspective. I'm viewing it from a neighborhood perspective."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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