The Baltimore County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to re-designate funds for renovation of Lansdowne High School toward construction of a new school.
In its 8-3 vote, the board is asking that the renovation money — $60 million in two phases — be put toward a new Lansdowne High School, although the vote means the process of acting on a new building, which could cost more than $100 million, will have to begin anew.
There is also no guarantee that the money requested for improvements will go toward building a new school.
"It is now on the capital plan as a replacement project," Nick Stewart, vice chair of the board and the representative from District 1, which includes Lansdowne, said of the $60 million. "That's an important step within the public process."
In voting to move forward with a new building project at Lansdowne, board members Tuesday night nixed awarding a $39.2 million contract, sourced from the capital budget, for the first phase of renovation work.
Stewart said the vote shows the state and the county where the board wants the money to go.
"The point is we're saying … we believe the money that's been allocated for Lansdowne represents a great commitment, however, we want to repurpose those dollars for the purpose of a replacement," Stewart said during the meeting. "This is a signal and a sign of what our desires are."
Pete Dixit, executive director of facilities management for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the project will require a feasibility study and will be treated as a new project.
Dayana Bergman, a longtime community advocate who has pushed for building a new school, said after the school board vote, "I'm nervous, because it was three-and-a-half years for this fight; it's a new fight."
In a statement Wednesday, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said, "We'll continue to accept guidance from the superintendent and the school board as to where those schools get built."
The Board of Education, in its approved fiscal year 2019 state capital budget request, listed renovations at Lansdowne High as its seventh and eight priorities; replacement schools for Dulaney High and Towson High were listed as priorities 26 and 27, respectively.
During the meeting, some board members raised the possibility that accepting the renovation would be better for students now, because a new school could take a decade to study, design and construct.
"My question is reality," said David Uhlfelder, an at-large member of the board. "If we vote down the renovation and this takes a 10-year project, what is the community going to say to us? I'd rather amortize $3 million a year … and at least have the kids in a degree of comfort. We've had professionals tell us that this will resolve our problems."
The Lansdowne community had been told that accepting renovations over a replacement would be the best course forward, as getting a new school could take years longer to complete than renovations.
That conventional wisdom was turned on its head, though, when Kamenetz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, announced in February that Dulaney would get a new school, rated for 2,300 students. Advocates began to push for a new building for Lansdowne, too.
While Lansdowne High is not expected to see growth as quickly as Dulaney, it is still projected to see growth. With enrollment at 1,342, Lansdowne is 78 students under capacity, according to 2017-2018 statistics.
The Baltimore Sun reported in February, after Kamenetz's announcement about Dulaney, that Tom Quirk, a Democrat who represents Lansdowne on the County Council, said he was "deeply disappointed and shocked" that the county executive decided to support a new building for Dulaney, but not Lansdowne.
"A year ago, the county executive said he wasn't going to build a new high school at Dulaney," Quirk said. "If Dulaney deserves a new high school, Lansdowne deserves a new school."
Ultimately, however, Kamenetz passed the burden of choosing which buildings to construct to the school system. In his final capital budget, released in April, Kamenetz included $30 million for planning studies to build two high schools, but he did not specify which schools should be studied.
According to Stewart, Tuesday night's vote does not affect that $30 million set aside for new school studies.
Stewart said the county executive could decide which schools to put the study money toward, or the school board would have to consider the planning studies as a separate matter.
For some, the back-and-forth over which schools would be renovated or redone is indicative of a more systemic issue in the county.
"We in this county have not had, and still do not have, a truly nonpolitical way of outlining projects that we want to get funded for the next 10 years in our capital plan," said Stewart, who is not running for re-election.
He added the next county executive and members of the County Council have "some very tough decisions regarding taxes and spending, and how they want to afford" renovations and new school construction.
Quirk, who is chairman of the council's Spending Affordability Committee, said the cost of building any of the new high school is estimated to be more than $100 million, and even one new school could stretch the county's capital budget in a given year.
A recent committee report said the county could have trouble meeting capital project needs in the future without raising taxes, cutting spending or hurting its credit rating.
"If we're going to build more than one new high school over the next several years, it will probably mean a tax increase or cuts in spending," Quirk said. "But I don't see cuts in spending deep enough to build new high schools."
Quirk and Stewart both said the process for building new schools in the county has become too politicized. Both said a system that outlines capital projects, removed from the political process, would benefit the county. Stewart has previously said Kamenetz "poisoned" the process of constructing new schools when he promised a new Dulaney school.
"We need a 10-year plan in writing," Quirk said. "We have to take it out of the political world and move it into the planner world."