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Balto. Co. to fund new school buildings to ease overcrowding

FinanceConstructionElementary SchoolsSchoolsPTA

Baltimore County plans to overhaul its elementary school buildings to add more than 1,700 seats in its central and southwestern neighborhoods, where overcrowding has pushed students and teachers into portable classrooms and hallways for their lessons.

The proposal announced Wednesday by schools Superintendent Dallas Dance calls for reopening Loch Raven Elementary and moving Catonsville Elementary to the Bloomsbury Community Center as well as additions and renovations at other sites. All of the projects are tentatively scheduled to be finished by the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Wednesday that the county government strongly supports the plan.

"We are committed to funding the construction and renovation of these schools to solve long-term overcrowding problems," Kamenetz said in an interview. "It's a smart investment because we're investing in the future of our county through our kids. ... Strong schools also result in strong neighborhoods."

The school construction in the southwestern and central communities is expected to cost "in excess of $100 million," he said, adding that officials do not know all the details yet. A bond issue to help fund the projects is slated for the ballot in November 2014. The county also will seek state money.

The county has proposed $600 million in school construction over the past three years, Kamenetz said.

Dance said the construction would "do much more than create more room for our students," adding that it will make schools safer and give students better technology.

In the county's central area, Dance has recommended reopening Loch Raven Elementary to provide 500 seats, and moving students and staff from Halstead Academy there. The county would renovate the existing Halstead Academy for a new school and build a 289-seat addition at Cromwell Valley Elementary.

Despite a series of public meetings about overcrowding, some community leaders felt they were brought into the process too late.

Gary Herwig, president of the Associates of Loch Raven Village Inc. — which opposes reopening Loch Raven Elementary — said his community didn't get a chance to weigh in.

"I understand that the superintendent has a job to do," he said. "But I feel like we've been left out and lied to and that really bothers me. This school isn't even on a major road. This school is in the heart of our neighborhood, and we've had no opportunity to participate."

In addition to moving Catonsville Elementary to the Bloomsbury center, the superintendent wants to add new buildings to the existing Westowne and Relay elementary schools. An addition to Westchester Elementary is also proposed. Altogether, the proposals would add nearly 1,000 seats in the area.

Steve Taylor, president of the Catonsville Elementary PTA, called the plan "great news for us."

"In some of the schools in the southwest, kids are out in ... the trailers," he said. "That puts added stress on the teachers, and it puts added stress on the common areas — bathrooms, cafeteria, gym."

Some people don't like the idea of a school at the Bloomsbury site, he said.

"You're never going be able to please everyone," Taylor said. "We certainly hope for the continued support [from the county] and definitely for the much-needed upgrades."

The county had considered funding air conditioning at Catonsville Elementary — which opened in 1910 — but decided it wasn't prudent to pour millions into such an old building, Kamenetz said. He said officials have not decided what will become of the current building.

Dance plans to recommend the proposals to the county school board at its meeting Tuesday. Kamenetz will ask the County Council to approve the funding next spring as part of the budget process.

In September, the school board approved building a 700-seat elementary school on Lyons Mill Road in Owings Mills to alleviate crowding at New Town and Woodholme elementary schools.

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

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FinanceConstructionElementary SchoolsSchoolsPTA
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