Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. reversed course this week to support a plan to replace Towson and Dulaney high schools, citing an extra infusion of cash from the state.
The reversal comes after Olszewski faced intense criticism in recent months from Towson and Dulaney advocates for backing a consultant’s controversial 15-year plan that called for renovation — not replacement — of the two high aging schools. Olszewski, a former county teacher who taught for a time out of temporary trailers, campaigned on a platform of addressing overcrowding and critical school construction needs.
Towson and Dulaney’s construction needs have long been a source of heated debate in Baltimore County. Parents and advocates have complained for years about burst pipes, dilapidated conditions or overcrowding at the two schools. Some critics said the county executive was failing to make good on campaign promises to prioritize capital improvements for the schools.
Now, Olszewski wrote in a letter to the Interagency Commission on School Construction, the county expects $42 million more in funding than originally anticipated through the state’s Built to Learn Act, which the state legislature passed in 2020 to help counties that are struggling to keep up with repairs for aging school buildings.
And the county’s share of school construction dollars earmarked in Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed 2023 capital budget, as well as $23 million from the Healthy School Facility Fund, will provide revenue for financing rebuilding the two high schools, according to the letter delivered Tuesday.
“I’ve never been more encouraged about where we are with school construction in Baltimore County in my life,” Olszewski said in an interview this week.
Olszewski initially supported the plan that called for renovating the high schools that was developed by the consulting firm CannonDesign at the school system and county government’s request. The company was asked to identify all school construction needs and craft an equitable spending plan for spreading limited local and state funds across the jurisdiction.
While backing that plan, Olszewski did call on the state to provide more funding for school construction.
His support for the consultant’s recommendations placed him at odds with Baltimore County’s school board, which in the fall submitted a capital improvements budget request to the state that included a total replacement of the two aging schools, among other things.
The school system and county needed to reach agreement in order for the projects to receive approval from the state, Olszewski said. The county executive spent recent weeks meeting with Gov. Larry Hogan and leadership in the General Assembly to push for more funding for school construction.
“There was never a lack of desire to do more for all of our kids, there was a desire to do so equitably,” said Olszewski, adding that he appreciated the passion parents have brought to the conversation.
In a statement, county school board chairwoman Julie Henn said the board was thankful for the support of the county and its state funding partners, “without whom, these projects could not advance.”
“All students and educators countywide need modern, healthy schools for teaching and learning,” Henn said. “Two of the County’s most urgent needs, the replacement of Towson and Dulaney High Schools, are imperative and I am very pleased to see these projects moving forward.”
Dulaney High School PTSA President Yara Cheikh, who has pushed for a rebuild, applauded elected officials for working together to find the funding “rather than accept a limited scope of projects for every school in the county,” she said Tuesday.
“We appreciate that the county executive is keeping a promise to this community and seeking ways to make sure all schools across the county receive comprehensive solutions,” Cheikh said. “It’s not about one school. It’s about every school in the system.”
A representative of the Towson Communities Alliance, an umbrella organization representing more than thirty community associations in the Towson area, said the consensus between county and school officials was “substantial.”
“It means a lot, not only to Towson,” said Mike Ertel, a vice president of the alliance. “I think whenever you’re building high schools, especially, it’s a sign that there’s financial health that the county is able to do this.”
Olszewski originally objected to a total replacement for Towson High School because of its landmark status, which protected historic exterior portions of the building.
“We anticipate the planning and design phase will reveal that Towson High School requires a significant renovation and new addition because of its historic designation, and we expect BCPS will follow all Maryland Historic Trust and County Landmarks Preservation Commission processes carefully,” the letter states. “Baltimore County government remains fully committed to delivering on a transformative project that feels like-new for this school community.”
State Senator Chris West, who represents portions of Baltimore County that include the two high schools, had previously blasted Olszewski’s backing for the renovations.
“He has gone back to the drawing board and decided that he made a decision that did not resonate well with the voters, and I could not be more pleased,” West said Tuesday.
“It’s going to mean a totally different world in the greater Towson and Timonium areas and for their children who will be attending [the schools],” West said. “Let’s give credit where credit is due.”
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Baltimore County Del. Cathi Forbes, who also represents Towson, said the consultant’s plan showed the community and government leaders that the school system’s needs exceeded the funds available.
“I give a lot of credit to the school board for saying we needed more money to address the aging infrastructure and credit to all of the elected officials who heard that call and looked for more money,” Forbes said.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, said the county executive and the governor deserve credit for working across party lines to secure funding, calling the result a “milestone” for the region.
During its Tuesday meeting, the Baltimore County Council discussed extending the contract for the consultant that originally recommended the schools be renovated for an additional $88,000. The council is expected to approve the extension at its Feb. 7 meeting.
The consultant’s plan called for spending $2.5 billion on construction projects — but that “did not go far enough to provide high quality schools for all our communities,” said Jennifer Lynch, director of education partnership for the county.
Cannon is expected to make recommendations on how to implement requirements under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act and long-term planning “based on the availability of new funding,” Lynch said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.