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Study of Baltimore County high school buildings calls for $1.2 billion in renovations and expansions, but not rebuilds

A study of construction needs at Baltimore County’s 24 high schools has concluded that none of the buildings require replacement, but should collectively undergo renovations and expansions that could cost up to $1.2 billion.

County board of education members heard a presentation Tuesday night on the findings of the study, which was conducted by the consulting firm CannonDesign. The county and school system hired the firm to develop construction priorities for a joint Multi-Year Improvement Plan for All Schools by assessing capacity concerns, educational equity and the condition of facilities.

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The recommendations are nonbinding, meaning elected officials could face tough decisions soon on how to fund the projects and whether to prioritize high schools for renovations and expansions as ranked by the consultants.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a former teacher, called the report’s findings “dire” and called on the state to provide additional funding relief.

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“As the report pointed out" Olszewski said, “there’s absolutely no way this gets done without the state being a part of it.”

CannonDesign ranked each high school according to need using a score that was based 35% on educational equity, 32% on facility condition and 33% on capacity concerns. The score’s weighting is based on 22,000 responses to a county-wide community survey.

The firm also sent representatives to inspect the condition of each school, none of which were found to require a full rebuild, CannonDesign representative Paul Mills said.

Sparrows Point High ranked highest in need, followed by Towson, Lansdowne, Dundalk, Catonsville and Dulaney high schools, respectively.

The first recommendation to the school system is to “finish what was started” by proceeding with plans to replace Lansdowne High School, Mills said. Baltimore County officials are then urged to make $100 million in “critical” capacity additions at Dundalk, Loch Raven, Patapsco and Towson high schools.

Once those expansions are underway, the report recommends the school system renovate, expand and add new school buildings in the eastern portion of the county. The firm described several options for how elected officials could proceed at this step.

Notably, the recommendations omit plans for a total rebuild of aging high schools such as Dulaney and Towson. Limited funding to replace or renovate aging buildings has pitted some of the schools against one another as their advocates debated which institution’s needs should be addressed first.

Mills told school board members that the first phase of the project, which focuses only on high schools, likely will take 27 years to realize under current county and state funding levels. The school system receives about $100 million annually from the county and, with an additional $40 million coming from the state for capital improvements.

The report’s $1.2 billion estimate could include the estimated cost of building “relief” high schools in overcrowded communities, but does not account for the cost of land purchases.

The study also presented a second scenario in which the Maryland General Assembly revives the Built to Learn Act, which would provide Baltimore County schools with an additional $110 million for renovations. That money would accelerate construction to a more palatable 15-year timeline.

Elected officials have long said construction is contingent on state funding through the Built to Learn Act, which was designed to address the concerns of counties across Maryland that say they’re struggling to keep up with aging school buildings that are in desperate need of repair.

A provision of the Built to Learn Act prevents the bill from taking effect until the Kirwan Commission education funding legislation becomes law. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the commission’s $4 billion-a-year plan in May, citing the massive hit on Maryland’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic.

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If the Built to Learn Act funding never reaches Baltimore County school system, the consulting firm recommends the county prioritize a smaller scope of renovations to the remaining high schools on the list within 15 years.

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Taylor DeVille and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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