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Residents raise concerns about aging schools in southwest Baltimore County

Catonsville resident Cindy Freeman speaks on behalf of the Hillcrest Elementary School PTA at a Southwest Education Advisory Council pre-budget hearing held in the cafeteria at Woodlawn High School Wednesday.
Catonsville resident Cindy Freeman speaks on behalf of the Hillcrest Elementary School PTA at a Southwest Education Advisory Council pre-budget hearing held in the cafeteria at Woodlawn High School Wednesday. (Lauren Loricchio, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Air-conditioning, renovated plumbing and Americans with Disabilities Act accessible sidewalks and crosswalks are among the needs at area schools, parents and other stakeholders told members of the Southwest Education Advisory Council during a pre-budget schools hearing Wednesday night.

The meeting held in the cafeteria at Woodlawn High School was held to get input from those in the southwest area of Baltimore County as to how county funds for public education should be allocated in the county's operating budget for FY 2016 and its capital budget for FY 2017.

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Stakeholders had the opportunity to voice their concerns and comments with testimony recorded by Beverly Coleman, chair of the advisory council, to be reported to the school board at its Oct. 22 meeting. The advisory council also encouraged stakeholders to testify at the Oct. 22 school board meeting. Among those in attendance was Board of Education member Mike Bowler, who represents the southwest area.

Cindy Freeman, parent of a third grader at Hillcrest Elementary School, testified on behalf of that school's Parent Teacher Association.

"Now that elementary school overcrowding has been addressed in southwest Baltimore County, our parents are concerned about the Hillcrest facility itself," Freeman said before the group of parents, public officials and community members, "Hillcrest Elementary will be the oldest and most run-down school in the area."

Three new 700-seat schools will be built in the area to replace the current Catonsville Elementary, Westowne Elementary and Relay Elementary, and a 200-seat addition will be added to Westchester Elementary by Aug. 2016. Lansdowne Elementary will also be replaced with a new 700-seat school although no construction timeline has been released yet.

Freeman requested a full renovation of Hillcrest, or "at the very least" an upgrade of the first grade wing, which is the center of the school's plumbing issues and an upgrade of the HVAC and plumbing systems. The school was built in 1968, with additions added in 2010, according to BCPS records.

"We will keep coming back until we get it," Freeman said.

A handful of parents from Southwest Academy Middle School, a magnet school for engineering and science in Woodlawn, want to see air-conditioning installed in their school, citing concerns about health and safety issues. Lack of air-conditioning at Woodlawn High School, which Southwest Academy feeds into, is also a problem, parents said.

Lakwanza Duckson, mother of a sixth-grader at Southwest Academy, said her son went to a basketball camp at the school last summer at Southwest Academy in the gym with a relative who is asthmatic.

"In July and August it is unbearable to be in the gymnasium where there is physical activity going on," Duckson said, adding, "This is a major health concern for someone who already has a predisposed condition."

"It's also a hindrance to the learning process," Duckson said.

Catonsville resident Chris Burk, who lives near Westowne Elementary School, cited the lack of ADA accessible pedestrian ramps at crosswalks near schools throughout the southwest area as a pervasive problem.

"On a walk one evening, when I was going by Westowne, I realized there is a crosswalk leading the school," Burk said. "I was distracted by the fact that there was no pedestrian ramp for the crosswalk."

"I thought to myself, how could anyone in a wheelchair or walker navigate the 8- to 10-inch curb to get to the other side?" Burk said, adding that many schools are also used by the county Board of Elections for voting sites and are used for recreational activities.

"The way I see it, whether you have physical or cognitive challenges, we really need to focus on including all people and I don't think that is happening," Burk said.

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The operating budget includes day-to-day costs of operating the school system such as textbook costs, salaries for teachers and curriculum costs, while the capital budget includes building and site improvements, said Kelly Nguyen, of the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) office of budget and reporting.

The capital budget is funded by Baltimore County and the State of Maryland, with funds being appropriated annually, according to BCPS information.

The FY 2016 operating budget school board public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Jan. 13 at West Towson Elementary, located at 6914 N. Charles St., Towson.

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