The Baltimore County Board of Education on Tuesday night heard a report and recommendations on how the school system could address high school capacity and facility condition shortfalls.
In a highly anticipated final report, consultant Sage Policy Group outlined the work it has done since the summer — meeting with communities, running surveys and crunching numbers — to construct three scenarios the county could follow to mitigate a projected shortfall of 1,700 high school seats by the 2027-2028 school year and address some school facility issues.
Anirban Basu, head of Sage Policy Group, made it clear that Sage was not presenting formal recommendations for the school board to vote up or down. Instead, he explained, Sage is presenting three scenarios the county can consider as “road maps” for how to move forward in the coming years.
However, Basu did provide three near-term priorities the school system could or should consider as starting points for more immediate relief, because implementing any of the full scenarios could take between 20 and 25 years, according to Sage’s projections.
“You might want to think about where to start. If you start in the wrong place, it can be deeply problematic,” Basu said.
The three near-term priorities are: building a new Lansdowne High School, a new Towson High School (or new Loch Raven High School), and adding seats at Sparrows Point High School or Patapsco High School.
Basu estimates the three near-term action items together could cost around $200 million to 300 million, but that projection was not in the formal report. The three full road maps presented by Sage have projected costs of between $590 million and $628 million.
Basu said survey results from county stakeholders indicated most respondents would be OK with spending up to around $600 million to address the capacity and facility conditions.
He said it appeared that respondents realized that spending less money would mean redistricting more students at more schools.
“They’re willing to pay a lot of money in this system to not boundary change kids,” Basu said.
None of the presented scenarios, for example, involve any boundary changes between Woodlawn High School and other area schools. Basu said it was made clear to him during the process that stakeholders at the already overcrowded Catonsville High School would not tolerate redistricting to Woodlawn, a school that is well below capacity.
“We have no boundary change process involving Woodlawn. Why is that? Because the folks at Catonsville said, ‘We don’t want that.’ That excess capacity at Woodlawn, we’re talking hundreds of seats, that goes un-utilized,” Basu said.
One of the reasons behind that, Basu said, could be because Woodlawn High was recently rated by the state’s education ranking with two stars, while Catonsville High was rated with four stars.
Student board member Haleemat Adekoya, who attends Milford Mill Academy, said she thinks the system as a whole should work to improve all schools across the county and “have each other’s backs.”
“A student, a child, can only see it’s bad based on what has been passed down to them. I want it to be known that thoughts such as that are passed down [from parents] and eventually they tend to be harmful to the success of the system,” Adekoya said.
Lisa Mack, the newly elected board member for the first council district which includes Catonsville, Woodlawn and Lansdowne, said she supported a new building for Lansdowne High and thinks the new Board of Education is “committed to doing the best for the greatest amount of students.”
She was not ready to evaluate any of the proposed scenarios from Sage in totality, she said, because the board had not met to discuss them yet. All her questions have been answered, she said, but “we just need to balance the needs of all the students.”
County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Catonsville and Lansdowne, asked for the board’s support in constructing a new Lansdowne High School.
“Now is the time to fast-track a brand new school for Lansdowne,” he said.
Quirk later said in an interview that would mean re-planning a new building in 2019 and starting construction by 2020.
Yara Cheikh, president of the Ridgley Middle School PTA, said she was excited by the presentation of the capacity study, and that she was glad high schools were being addressed.
But she urged the board to not only consider crowding while making decisions, but also the physical school conditions.
She said it would be a mistake to not address “aging and decrepit facilities that are not over capacity.”
“We don’t know where we are today with certain schools,” Cheikh said, referring to the facilities report. “I ask that you consider aging infrastructure,” when making school construction and renovation decisions.
There is not any indication whether Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement Tuesday of $3.5 billion for school construction projects across the state will have an effect on proposed capital projects in Baltimore County.
Hogan did say, however, that “more than 90 percent of the projects requested” by local school systems from 2020-2024 would be covered by the funds.
Basu said the news from the governor could turn his 20- to 25-year projection into a 12- to 15-year projection.
“We’ll see how this works out,” Basu said.
In Baltimore County, projects with requested funding from the state include replacement buildings for Dulaney, Towson and Lansdowne high schools. It also includes renovations at Woodlawn and Patapsco high schools.
State Del. Eric Ebersole, a Catonsville Democrat, said at the meeting Tuesday night that he supports a new Lansdowne High , but recognized that it was not the only school in the county that needs a replacement or improvement.
In a later interview, Ebersole said he had not received any indication whether the money pledged by Hogan would go toward Baltimore County.
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“For the record, I think Baltimore County is in a relatively unique position to deserve [funding],” Ebersole said. Baltimore County has “immediate needs to improve the infrastructure of its schools at this time. We should respond to that need with appropriately targeted funding.”