Parents blame politics as Severna Park High goes without fixes

They had already been through the public testimony, the email campaigns and, they thought, the political wrangling. Severna Park High School was on track to receive a nearly $107 million to rebuild one of Anne Arundel County's highest-performing schools — but also one of its worst facilities.

But some members of the County Council argued that for the same price, the school system could renovate six elementary schools that they said were just as needy. At what seemed to Severna Park advocates like the last minute, the council voted to delay funding for the project and use the money for the other schools.

What happened to Severna Park during this spring's budget process, critics say, is evidence of a school construction and renovation system bogged down by politics. And with an economic downturn leaving funding around the state flat or in decline, fights over available funding for an ever-widening group of aging school buildings are likely to continue.

"Despite what anybody might try to say, the reason they pushed that school off was not money," said Brad Myers, an information technology consultant and 1982 graduate of Severna Park, where his teenage daughter is now a sophomore. "One of the main reasons was because there was fighting among some County Council members and it was retribution for that. It angers me. Inevitably, if there's politicians making the decision on how money is spent, you're not going to take that out of it."

But several members of the council who supported the funding change disputed that interpretation, saying that the funding decisions were aimed at spreading the money equitably.

Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from South County, said Lothian Elementary School in his district was just as deserving, noting its portable classrooms.

"This wasn't about punishing anyone," Walker said. "I toured five of these six elementary schools, and they all need a lot of work."

At the root of the problem, almost everyone agrees, is a lack of money. In Baltimore, for example, officials are contending with $2.8 billion in unfunded maintenance needs. Sixteen of Baltimore's schools were built in the 1920s. The city's Booker T. Washington Middle School is the oldest school building still in use in the state, built in 1895.

Similarly, Anne Arundel County has a $1.5 billion maintenance backlog and 36 schools jockeying for renovations. In 2005, the school system commissioned a private company to rank and prioritize its construction and renovation projects. The study found three of the county's high schools, including Severna Park, to be most in need of funding.

But the replacement or extensive renovation of an aging high school can cost about $100 million, and the school system doesn't have enough money to pay for all three at once. Northeast Senior High in Pasadena was the first to get renovation money and is being fixed up now.

Academically, Severna Park is one of Anne Arundel's top-performing high schools, winning a statewide "Blue Ribbon" title in 2010. But the school, in one of the county's most affluent communities, is far from the modern facility brimming with the latest in technology that one might expect. Built in 1959 — its last major renovation was in the 1970s — the school, while clean and well-maintained, shows its age. Everything from space — the school is over capacity by more than 100 students — to ventilation are major problems.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said it was a visit to the aging facility that led him to begin funding its redesign plans in his budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year. However, critics interpreted Leopold's move as a political calculation during an election year that was intended to ensure support in an important community.

"There are infinite school construction needs chasing finite resources," said Leopold, a Republican. "It's frustrating to not be able to fund all the projects that need funding. Every student is entitled to a safe and secure learning environment."

In fiscal 2012, Severna Park High is to receive nearly $3.6 million to pay for design of the building. The project would get no funding in 2013 and 2014, but would pick up again in 2015 through 2017.

Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, said the school board advocates equally for all schools in need of funding. "We don't disagree that Severna Park needs to be funded, but our answer is to fund them all," Mosier said.

Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for Howard County schools, said the system has similarly sought outside guidance on how to rank its schools in terms of construction needs. Howard County schools' $73 million capital budget for this fiscal year includes money for renovations at Atholton High School, a new elementary school in a growing area along the U.S. 1 corridor, renovations at Phelps Luck Elementary and planning for an addition to Gorman Crossing Elementary.

"There's always more than we can address in a single year," said Caplan. "Unfortunately, that's an area where we've taken cuts. When we ran into some lean times, we've never quite gotten back to the original level of funding. You're trying to protect the classroom, not lay off teachers, try to make sure any cuts you make don't affect the classroom."

Keith Scroggins, the chief operating officer of Baltimore schools, said he's looking at experimental options to chip away at the school system's construction, renovation and maintenance needs. At current funding levels, it would take the city school system 50 years to complete the $2.8 billion worth of work needed, so it is trying to form public-private partnerships and working on a plan to increase its bond cap from $100 million to $250 million.

"Without question, you have council people, spurred on by people in their districts, who come to you about what's being done in their districts," Scroggins said. City schools CEO Andrés Alonzo "has made it very clear that any decision regarding school repairs or renovations will be made on the basis of academics as well as need, and they will not be political decisions."

During a recent tour of Severna Park High, students were seen taking a final exam in the bleachers in the school's gymnasium, with fans blowing to keep them cool on a hot and humid day.

The school's heating and air-conditioning system is faulty, with temperatures varying from one classroom to the next, school officials and parents said. Most of the windows in the classrooms have been boarded up because the school could not afford maintenance costs.

Principal Patrick J. Bathras said he was disappointed when the school's construction funding was delayed. He said students and parents take pride in the building despite the school's poor physical plant: The PTSO recently landscaped the outside and added blue picnic tables.

"These kids have worked hard and continue to work hard," said Bathras. "It would be nice to have a facility that equals student performance."

Some advocates say they worry that the school's noted academics might lessen the urgency to get the Severna Park project done.

"If it was one of the poorer performing schools in the county, I don't think they would have taken the same position on it," Myers said.

State Del. Kathy Vitale, an Anne Arundel Republican, appealed to the County Council in the months leading up to the budget process not to delay the Severna Park project.

"The needs are great," said Vitale, who has long advocated for Severna Park's renovation. "The county can't fund everything they need to fund. That's when politics can really be at its worst. And when you maneuver with children's education, it's not a good mix."