An Elkridge site previously considered — and rejected — for a new elementary school might be used for a middle school instead.
The Howard County Board of Education on Thursday, Oct. 20 approved the 22-acre site on Coca-Cola Drive for a new middle school, which would open in August 2014.
Some school board members were surprised and concerned that the site, part of the budding Oxford Square development, was being recommended for the middle school. They cited the same factors that gave them pause when planning for an elementary school on the site earlier this year: its close proximity to one of four sites being considered for an CSX Corp. intermodal transit facility, and its closeness to CSX train tracks.
"This is the site that we refused to approve for an elementary school, and I don't see that there's been any significant change since the decision," said board member Allen Dyer, the only member to vote against the site Thursday. Board member Cindy Vaillancourt abstained from voting.
"What's different about an 11-,12-, 13-year-old kid from a 5 to a 10-year-old kid?" asked board member Brian Meshkin. "What made it objectionable for an elementary school that makes it OK for a middle school? That's what I'm having a hard time understanding."
Despite his objections, Meshkin voted for the site because he did not want to delay the opening of a new middle school. He said he hoped a better site would be found in time to allow for a 2014 opening.
Schools Superintendent Sydney Cousn said school officials "are looking at sites all the time, because we want to be ahead of capital projects ... How expeditiously we can acquire them is questionable."
There is a possibility of changing sites; the "drop-dead" date, as Vaillancourt put it, is when the board approves construction documents, and that won't happen for a few more months.
Ken Roey, executive director of facilities planning and management, said one thing had changed since the Elkridge site was rejected for an elementary school: The board had asked to accelerate the opening of a new middle school, pushing the opening date up from 2015 to 2014 to accommodate overcrowding in the region.
The combined growth of the northeast and southeast regions, which the new school would serve, is projected to put some area middle schools at 135 percent capacity in coming years, said Joel Gallihue, manager of school planning. Opening a new middle school a year earlier, he said, would help "get ourselves out of the woods at the right time."
The board approved the site for its land bank last year after developer Preston Capital Partners, which is planning the Oxford Square development, pledged to give $4 million to help pay for a school in the community. The $4 million offer is still open for a middle school, Gallihue said. If staff submits schematic designs for the school to the state by March 2012, the project would be eligible for state funding in fiscal year 2013, Roey said.
An appropriate site
Furthermore, Roey and Gallihue told the board, the site was never inappropriate for a school.
"As a staff, we never found anything wrong with the site," Roey said. "What we found was a difficult discussion with a lot of unknowns from the community."
"We recommended it for a school all along," Gallihue said. "It is truly better suited; we've tested it with this school design, and the large size makes it easy for us to move forward."
Board member Ellen Giles said it was a question of timing and information. Problems with the Oxford Square site arose when the school board learned in February, on the same day members were set to approve the site for an elementary school, that the site was near a proposed location for the CSX facility, and the two timelines for the projects clashed. The school board opted for another site on Ducketts Lane for an elementary school, and kept the Oxford Square site in its land bank for future projects.
"Since everything happened at the same time, we didn't want to be precipitant in our decision because we had no information but a whole lot of things going around that we didn't know anything about," Giles said. "We've had transportation studies, we've had a whole bunch more coming into play that at least helps us understand what the impact might be. … We are farther along now."
The other proposed CSX site in Howard County is in Jessup, west of the Camden Line and north of Montevideo Road. Those sites are still going through Maryland Environmental Policy Act processes, Gallihue said, and a decision is unlikely to be made soon.
Board member Sandy French said she wrestled with the issue, but decided the Coca Cola Drive location is "a good site for a school."
"I keep coming back to the fact that this school is going to service students who live in that community, who (might) have that intermodal facility by their homes," she said. "This is their community ... I don't like the facility, I don't think it belongs there but we have no control over that. What we have to do is provide adequate educational facilities for the children as close to their own neighborhoods as possible."