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News Maryland Baltimore County Towson

Mays Chapel school groundbreaking disrupted by protesters

A shouting match between Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and protesters disrupted a groundbreaking Friday morning at the site of a new 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel, continuing the wrangling between the county and area residents who have vigorously opposed the new school.

"It's my job to talk, your job to listen right now," Kamenetz said to the crowd, moments before he told a man in attendance that he had a "big mouth."

The eruption, which lasted just under three minutes, came after protesters carrying signs that read "Build neighborhood schools not commuter schools," drowned out remarks by Kamenetz and Board of Education President Lawrence Schmidt with jeers.

Opponents of the 700-seat elementary school at Mays Chapel Park believe it will take away the area's only green space and is a bad place for a school because there are few children in the area. They have fought the school at every opportunity since its proposal in late 2011, including filing suit against the county.

And though the groundbreaking was brought the school closer to reality, around 75 protesters turned up at the groundbreaking to try and steal the spotlight from county officials.

During Schmidt's remarks, the crowd chanted "Save our park," at the school board president, who himself is a Mays Chapel resident.

When Schmidt said he looked forward to returning to the site for the school's opening, a protester yelled that they didn't want him to come back.

Kamenetz's speech followed, but not before he engaged with some of the more vocal opponents in what became a shouting match between himself and a handful of audience members.

Over chants from audience members who claimed the school was railroaded and would destroy their park, Kamenetz shouted down the dissenters from the podium and alternated between asking them to be quiet and to allow him to speak.

At one point, one of the five police officers in attendance spoke with a protester, but Kamenetz shifted his attention to another protester and the arguments continued.

"I think it is disgraceful of adults to act like children, and that's how you are acting. You are setting an example for our children that is disgraceful, sir," Kamenetz said.

"So are you, so are you!" replied a voice in the crowd.

Once the crowd calmed, Kamenetz explained that the school was necessary to accommodate elementary school overcrowding in the York Road corridor, though even the additional 700 seats combined with additions at several Towson-area schools will still not be enough to accommodate enrollment projections.

"Here's the real reality, folks, and this is what you're missing," Kamenetz said. "We have to build another, on top of this, another 700 to 900 seats."

On Friday evening, county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said Kamenetz "reacted in a human way and demonstrated his passion for addressing the need for additional seats in the York Road corridor."

"When he realized that the schoolchildren who were present were clearly distressed by the yelling of the protesters, he reacted strongly," Kobler said.

Officials have said the Mays Chapel school will help alleviate overcrowding at eight schools in the central corridor: Cockeysville, Lutherville, Padonia, Pinewood, Pot Spring, Riderwood, Timonium and West Towson.

In his FY2014 budget, Kamenetz announced funding for another 700-seat school in the Lutherville-Timonium area.

The site at Mays Chapel Park was approved in March 2012, but the state Board of Education ruled that proper public notice was not given for a hearing on the matter and the approval was overthrown.

After a second public hearing in January, the board approved the site again. The County Council also authorized a land swap in which 10 county-owned acres on the site were traded for 10 acres owned by the school system. That trade allowed for the school to be built on a smaller footprint, officials said.

However, Project Open Space laws protect the land, and the Save Mays Chapel Park Committee, made up of school opponents, has filed a lawsuit claiming the council skirted real estate regulations in making the swap. Committee co-chair Whistler Burch said no other parties have responded to the suit.

Despite the groundbreaking, opponents still believe they can stop the school.

"This is meant to intimidate us, make no mistake," Gail Purnell, a resident of the nearby condominiums, said.

The Mays Chapel school will open for the 2014-2015 school year, according to BCPS officials.

The protester's outbursts cast a shadow on the day for others in attendance: the parents and children from Pinewood and Pot Spring, and school officials who put their time into the project.

Emma Whatley, a third-grader at Pot Spring, was one of the students invited to lead the Pledge of Allegiance and join school officials for the groundbreaking. As Kamenetz and the opponents shouted back and forth, her mother, Melissa, held her daughter close at her side.

"It was a little unsettling to hear all of the grown-ups yelling," Melissa Whatley, 44, said. "It's disappointing that the kids had to see that."

For Whatley, who grew up in Mays Chapel, the school has been inevitable for most of her life.

"In our family, we have a joke that my younger sister was supposed to go to this school because it's been on the books for that long," she said. "Everything else came afterward."

BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance kept the focus on the children, whom he said are sometimes forced to learn in less-than-ideal conditions.

"Our community is a family," Dance said. "Just like all families, sometimes you agree to disagree, but one thing that we have to always keep in mind is that the future of this country rests with the young men and young women right in front of me."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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