Baltimore County parents argue for new schools, not renovations

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Squirrels falling through ceilings, pipes bursting at aging Baltimore County high schools

At some high schools in Baltimore County, students have lived for more than a decade with cracking floors, bursting pipes and cramped classrooms without air conditioning. Each year, the buildings would deteriorate a little more, and little would be done.

Now officials are planning tens of millions of dollars in repairs and renovations to four county high schools — but parents from both ends of the county say it's too little, too late.

They say the money officials plan to spend — estimated between $32 million and $45 million at each of the schools — will not be enough to turn 1960s-era buildings with sinking foundations, opaque windows and brown water into 21st-century facilities.

In the long run, they say, building new schools would be more cost-effective — and save students the difficulty of going to class in buildings undergoing renovations.

"The cost of a renovation is economic malfeasance," said Yara Cheikh, the mother of a student at Dulaney High School in Timonium.

The county plans renovations at Dulaney, Lansdowne High School, Patapsco High School in Dundalk and Woodlawn High School. Parents at Lansdowne and Dulaney have been the most vocal in demanding new schools.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has resisted that call. With the cost of building a new high school building estimated at more than $100 million, Kamenetz said, replacing the schools would not be feasible.

"We can't afford to do that and everything else," Kamenetz said in an interview.

But facing accusations that he is treating some areas of the county better than others, Kamenetz agreed this week to do a comparison of the work proposed at the four schools with those at the recently completed renovations at Pikesville and Hereford.

The county executive said he will spend $1.3 billion on school construction between 2010 and 2020. He plans to build 15 new elementary schools and put additions on 11 more.

Even after that money is spent, school officials say, the system is likely to need more renovations and construction to alleviate overcrowding. They project enrollment to rise by 1,000 students a year for the next decade.

County officials expect to begin the next fiscal year July 1 with a surplus of $249.4 million. That includes the $93 million they are required to keep in a rainy-day fund.

Kamenetz said he will not raise taxes. He said he would consider building new schools only if the bids on renovations were so high that "we are reaching a tipping point that it is not fiscally prudent to do a renovation.

"Then we'll start having a conversation about new construction," he said.

Cheikh applauded Kamenetz's financial commitment to school construction but said more needs to be done.

"I think he is in front of a faucet that is running like a fire hydrant," she said.

Using county figures, Cheikh has calculated that the county will spend $130 to $190 per square foot on Dulaney. It spent $307 per square foot on Pikesville and $273 per square foot on Hereford.

About half of the estimated cost of Dulaney's renovation — $19 million — is to be spent on installing central air conditioning.

The renovation would not add space to the school. Dulaney is smaller, by 47,000 square feet, than the state recommends for the 1,800 students it holds. The system projects that it will have 155 more students than it can accommodate in the year renovations are to be completed.

Even by the standards of activist suburban parents, the groups from Lansdowne and Dulaney have gone to great lengths to keep their case in the public eye.

Lansdowne parents held a protest march and got 1,100 people to sign a petition asking for a new school. They have created a Facebook page called Lansdowne Needs a New School, spoken at school board meetings and made T-shirts promoting their cause.

"What I find very frustrating is that there haven't been any major renovations done to Landsdowne in 30 years," said Katherine Bloom, the mother of a 10th-grader.

A group of Dulaney parents meet every two weeks to plan strategy. They have launched an intensive lobbying campaign, with a different parent writing, emailing or calling Kamenetz each day for the past month, PTA Chair Hope Mims said.

Parents at both schools said the signs that the foundations are settling are evident in the cracked floors and walls. In some places the floors have buckled.

At Landsdowne, wall tiles are separating. Brown water has seeped onto the auditorium floor. The corner of the music room floor is several inches lower than the rest of the room, and its ceiling is covered in brown rust spots.

Lansdowne was built just feet from a lake. Now sinkholes are opening less than 15 feet from the building.

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said that engineers brought in to assess the foundation say it is structurally sound.

Bloom wants a more extensive evaluation.

"The engineer couldn't give us details about how these issues are going to be fixed," she said at a meeting held by school officials in February to discuss the renovations with the community. "Let's have an accurate assessment.

"We want a correct, accurate geo-technical survey and asbestos assessment," she said. "We didn't get that."

At Dulaney, Cheikh has a list of complaints: "Brown water, 60-year-old cabinets held up by masking tape, undersized classrooms serving 30 or 40 students. Its hallways are too small. It has climate issues. The temperature can vary as much as 50 degrees between one end of the building and another."

Assistant Principal Tom Dugas said the old pipes, some of them full of hot water, have burst eight times in the past five years, sending water running down halls, filling up the auditorium's 4-foot-deep orchestra pit and flooding the front entrance.

Dugas remembered the time a pipe rupture sent water cascading like a waterfall down steps. He leapt up the steps, hoping to save audio-visual equipment.

Emma O'Grady is a senior at Dulaney.

"It is really sad," she said. "We deserve better."

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford was touring the school last year when a pipe burst in a heating unit in a classroom.

When the janitor tried to shut off the water, Principal Sam Wynkoop said, the knob he was turning crumbled in his hand.

The custodial staff worked around the clock for three days, emptying a bucket that filled up every hour, before the school system sent someone to fix the problem.

Dulaney students say they have seen rodents, including a squirrel that fell through a light fixture into the middle of a class.

The feasibility studies call for the guts of the buildings — the pipes, heating and air conditioning — to be updated, and other necessary improvements to fix cracks and wear and tear.

The school system has replaced two of its 23 high schools in the past five years — Dundalk and Carver Center for Arts and Technology — by constructing a new school on playing fields beside the old building, moving the students in, and tearing down the old building.

Dance said he won't know the cost of the renovations until contractors bid on them, but he does not believe they will be as much as building new schools.

"Would I like four new high schools? It's always better to build new high schools," he said.

But the school system is dependent on the county for funding.

Lansdowne Principal Ken Miller and Wynkoop, the Dulaney principal, said their buildings are so run-down that it affects the way students see themselves and the way the community views the schools.

"I have amazing things that are happening here," said Miller, but it is difficult to persuade parents to send their children to the school. "Perceptions are very important."

Wynkoop said he would rather have a new school because the renovations, which would take about three years, would have a significant effect on the students who have to go to the school while it is going on.

"Their whole high school experience will be renovation," he said. "I get frustrated for the kids."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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