Board approves pursuing $8.2M Oxford Square site for elementary school

The Howard County Board of Education Thursday night unanimously approved acquiring an $8.2 million parcel of land in Hanover for a new elementary school.

By a vote of 6-0, with board member Sandra French absent from the vote, the board authorized central office staff to proceed with buying 8.2 acres in the Oxford Square development to put in the system’s land bank. Specifically, the land will be used for a new elementary school which would open in 2019, providing more space for students along the Route 1 corridor.

The school would sit adjacent to a currently-under-construction middle school in the same development, which is set to open August 2014.

When combined with the middle school site, the campus would sit on approximately 30 acres of land.

Joel Gallihue, the school system’s manager of school planning, said the site had gone through two appraisals, which were then verified in a third independent appraisal, and the school system believes the $8.2 million asking price from sellers Kellogg-CCP is a fair market value.

The school sites in Oxford Square came under high scrutiny in 2011, when the school system pursued building an elementary school at the same time CSX Corp. was pursuing a nearby location for an intermodal facility. The board ultimately decided to build an elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge, and a year later approved the building of a middle school on the same site after CSX approved plans to build the intermodal facility in Baltimore.

Lingering concerns remained among some board members regarding the campus’s proximity to the train tracks. In putting those concerns to rest, Vice-Chairman Brian Meshkin asked Gallihue to confirm that CSX is no longer exploring building the intermodal facility in the area and that the elementary school is more than 1,000 feet from the tracks, and will be separated from them by “housing and open space.”

Board member Cindy Vaillancourt said she shared Meshkin’s concerns, but “personally (does) not have a problem with the tracks.”

She did, however, have concerns that 8.2 acres was too small — she preferred purchasing the land to expand the middle school site. Given various financial needs, she asked if the $8.2 million was a “good use of money.”

“We have $5 million in deferred maintenance (for other schools) backlogged and other competing demands for money,” she said.

Ultimately, she voted to acquire the land to "keep our options open."

"Obviously we are not real estate speculators, but as good stewards of the taxpayer dollar we have to make sure we don't pay more for a site than it is objectively worth," Vaillancourt said after the meeting. "Any number of things could change between now and when the system is ready to build on that site. ... We can buy it now, or possibly kick ourselves later. That's why I voted to buy the site."

Acquiring land is critical, said Executive Director of Facilities, Planning and Management Ken Roey, especially land like the Oxford Square parcel, which he described as “good building land.”

“It’s worth the $8.2 million,” he said.

Board member Janet Siddiqui said she was comfortable with purchasing the land.

“We need an elementary school, with the growth that’s happening in that area,” she said. “It will be a nice campus; you can envision parents seeing that for themselves, their kids going from kindergarten to eighth grade on that campus.”

Oxford Square is currently in the attending areas of Bellows Springs, Elkridge and Ducketts Lane elementary schools and potentially could relieve all three, Gallihue said when staff first proposed buying the land in July.

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