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Four-year plan calls for major upgrades for schools

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Where are priorities for school construction in Baltimore County?

Dulaney High School is one of the top high schools in the state in terms of academics, but its decades-old water pipes aren't performing as well.

Three times in the past year pipes have burst. In one instance, water filled the orchestra pit in the auditorium during a winter break and ruined musical instruments. In another, the school lobby was flooded and assistant principals joined custodians as they desperately tried to sweep water out the front door while a plumber worked to shut off the flow.

These stories, as well as the lack of air conditioning, the rusted sinks, cloudy windows and cracked tiles, motivated parents Kristin Panousos and Lisa McClellan to begin a campaign to fix the school. With all the other responsibilities teachers and administrators have this year, said Panousos, "I am blown away they are dealing with a building that is crumbling around them."

Dulaney is one of the many school buildings across Baltimore County in need of repairs and upgrades, according to a new report by a consultant for the school board. The assessment rated each of the 173 buildings, giving them a score of one to five. A five was given to just 13 schools, most either built or renovated in the past several years. The majority of schools received a two or a three.

Fourteen schools scored below a two, indicating serious problems. The lowest score, a 1.03, went to Colgate Elementary, in the southeastern part of the county. The 90-year-old building contains asbestos, lacks air conditioning and is on a busy street. The wiring and pipes need replacing, there's no sprinkler system, the corridors are narrow and the lighting is poor, according to the report.

Despite its problems and those at Dulaney, there are no plans to address the deficiencies.

Although the county has committed to spend $1.1 billion to repair and replace schools in the next decade, a good portion of that money will be spent simply trying to keep up with school system enrollment, which has grown by 5,000 students over the past five years.

Many of Baltimore County's elementary schools are bursting at the seams, with trailers accommodating the overflow. According to school system figures, there were 2,900 more students in the elementary schools this year than there were seats — or what the state rates the schools to hold.

As in Baltimore, where $980 million will be invested in the next several years for upgrades and renovations to city schools, the county has schools that are aging, lack air conditioning and haven't been updated in years. But unlike the city, which after years of declining enrollment has too many seats, the county faces pressure to upgrade schools at the same time it must build new ones.

The county has built several new elementary schools in recent years in the Towson area, where the overcrowding has been the worst, but more schools need to be added in other fast-growing areas.

This month the county school system released a four-year plan that, if approved, calls for the renovation of five schools and the building of seven new ones. School officials did not release estimates of what it might cost, but said it would have to be done over a number of years as bonds are sold to pay for the projects. As in all school construction projects, state funds would supplement county money.

At least five of the new schools would be replacements, built next to a deficient existing school that would later be torn down. These include Relay, Westowne and Lansdowne elementary schools in the southwestern part of the county and Bedford and Reisterstown elementary schools in the northwest. Another northwest school, not yet named, would also be replaced.

A new, 700-seat school is under construction in the northwest near Owings Mills, and four other elementary schools will see renovations or additions: Catonsville and Westchester in the southeast and Pleasant Plains and Oakleigh in the central area of the county.

School officials say they want to study development in the southeastern area — which includes Dundalk, Middle River and Essex — before deciding what schools will be built or renovated there.

Middle and high schools have some extra capacity, but Russell Brown, the school system's chief of accountability and performance management, said the county will need that space as the growing elementary population moves into higher grades.

"Looking at our 10-year projections across the district, we do not see challenges" in the middle and high schools, Brown said.

School board member Michael Collins said in the past, politics sometimes played a part in deciding where renovations were done and new schools were built, but he believes the four-year facilities plan is a rational and fair approach to deciding which schools to fix first.

The new facilities assessment is not intended to influence decisions on which buildings to renovate or build, but rather is an attempt to catalog the condition of the schools, according to Kevin Smith, the system's chief operating officer.

The study does not estimate the cost of repairs to bring all schools up to standards.

School administrators said no building is in such poor condition that it is considered unsafe.

"I think moving forward with this [four-year plan], we need to think of our schools as investments, not expenses," said Yara Cheikh, a parent who has worked to get northern Baltimore County schools renovated. "For too long we did stopgap measures and Band-Aids. I am hopeful it is a move in the right direction."

In some cases, she said, the school system has renovated a building for only a few million dollars less than replacing it would have cost.

School administrators said they will hold several public meetings in the coming months to get more input on a plan to review the operation of magnet schools and the four-year facilities plan. The school board has voted on next year's capital facilities budget, which includes some of the improvements in the plan. The board will consider longer-term facilities projects in the spring. Superintendent Dallas Dance said the four-year plan is "a fluid document, we will have to constantly update."

Jean Suda, a parent activist in the northern part of the county, said she believes the county should consider combining some elementary grades into middle schools in areas where there is too much space in middle schools and not enough in the elementary grades.

"Why aren't we considering merging the fifth grades of current elementary schools that feed into underutilized middle schools into the middle schools?" she asked. "Wouldn't this go a long way toward alleviating elementary overcrowding and providing room for pre-kindergarten?"

Suda said there should not be a disconnect between the study of the current state of facilities and the facilities plan. She wants the county to do a much more comprehensive, decade-long plan to address its aging school facilities.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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