The distance between Lansdowne and Dulaney high schools is 25 miles of Beltway driving — in traffic, the trip can take more than an hour.
Despite the distance, the futures of the two schools, as well as that of Towson High School, are deeply intertwined, as Baltimore County wrestles with a puzzle: Three school communities say they need new buildings, but Councilman Tom Quirk, chair of the council's spending affordability committee, said the county only has funding for one.
The need is evident at all three schools. In six years, Towson High is expected to be more than 700 students over its state-rated capacity, and a 2014 facilities assessment noted worn finishes and corrosion in the electrical system. Dulaney High has experienced burst pipes, accessibility issues and a lack of air conditioning. And Lansdowne High, with a facilities assessment score of 1.74 out of 5, is ranked as the worst high school building in the county.
Advocates at each school say that a renovation would not solve their problems. But at more than $100 million each, some officials say that building even one new high school could max out the county's capital budget.
A recent report from the county's Spending Affordability Committee found that the county cannot address its many upcoming needs, including school construction and maintenance, without raising revenues or threatening the county's credit rating. The county has not raised tax rates in more than a half-century.
With more need than cash, Baltimore County faces a choice — one that can seemingly pit school communities against one another. And because there is not enough money for every school, a debate on one raises worries of a domino effect on the others.
At an April 17 school board meeting, board member Nick Stewart moved to put Lansdowne on the board's capital budget request, a list of projects the school system asks the county to fund. The vote was postponed and is now scheduled to take place May 8.
A new Towson High is priority No. 26 on that budget request list, and Dulaney is No. 27. (Priority No. 1 is air conditioning for Franklin High in Reisterstown.)
Board member Kathleen Causey, who represents Dulaney, seemed open to putting Lansdowne on the list — but in an amendment to Stewart's motion, which failed because nobody seconded it, she proposed making Lansdowne priority No. 28.
‘He misled us.’
When Nick Stewart, Lansdowne High School's school board representative, tells the story of the school's renovation, he relates a tale of betrayal.
"He misled us," Stewart said of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in a speech April 17 imploring the board to put Lansdowne back in the running for a new school. "When he said that there was no money for new schools, he misled us."
In 2017, Lansdowne and Dulaney were in the same boat: Both communities wanted new schools, and both were getting renovations. Lansdowne's would cost around $30 million, and Dulaney's would cost about $40 million. The Board of Education rejected both, saying neither amount of funding would be sufficient to solve the schools' deep, structural facility problems.
That was where the schools' fates diverged: The board put Dulaney in the running for a new school, where it was expected to wait for years. Lansdowne instead was promised a record-breaking $60 million for an expanded renovation, which would take the school out of the running for a new building.
The proposed renovation, as described by engineer John DiMenna at a school board meeting last fall, would give the school entirely new air systems, pipes and finishes, but it would not expand the size of classrooms. Because it would not change the layout of the school it would leave many accessibility and hallway circulation issues that exist today.
The board was supposed to vote on whether to approve Lansdowne's $60 million renovation April 17, but delayed the vote to early next month. If approved, construction could start this summer and be done by 2020.
Stewart originally championed the $60 million renovation for Lansdowne. In November, he called it "life-changing," but then Kamenetz changed course.
Last fall, Kamenetz had proposed planning money for two new schools in the "central-northeast area" — one, he said, would be Towson, and the other would be decided by an independent study. But in February, he promised Dulaney a new school.
Stewart said at an April 17 board meeting that Kamenetz had "poisoned" the process.
The proposed renovation, Stewart said, would be "a great result in a world with no new schools." But if Dulaney gets a school now, so should Lansdowne, he said.
The county executive's office says that a new Dulaney High School is a priority because of overcrowding.
"School system data indicates that there is a need for more than 1,400 seats in the central area corridor over the next ten years, and the additional 350 seats at Dulaney will help address that issue," county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler wrote in an email.
Dulaney itself is not projected to be dramatically overcrowded in the next 10 years — at its peak in 2026, the 1,984-seat school is projected to be over capacity by only 70 students, a far cry from Towson's 762. Even Lansdowne is expected to be more crowded, with 130 more students than seats.
So for Dulaney to solve overcrowding in the northern part of the county, some Towson students would have to be redistricted to Dulaney, something that some Towson High advocates have previously resisted.
Asked if the county executive supports redistricting, Kobler said, "More often than not, when the school system builds a new school or addition to address enrollment needs, it involves boundary adjustments."
"Dulaney High School, with 43 acres of a well-suited site for construction, would be part of the solution for overcrowding," Causey said at last week's board meeting, saying a new Towson and Dulaney "need to go together."
A new Dulaney could also help Towson by shuffling students, Causey proposed. A new Dulaney could be built first, next to the old building. Then Dulaney students could move into the new building, and Towson students could move into the old Dulaney while a new Towson was built on the site of the old one.
Stewart argues with Kobler's math. He said, both at the board meeting last week and in an interview, that by including overcrowded northeast area schools like Perry Hall in its calculations used to argue for Dulaney, Kamenetz's office "manipulated the data."
Kobler explained that the calculation of 1,400 needed seats includes estimates for both central and northeast area high schools: Pikesville, Perry Hall, Parkville, Towson, Loch Raven and Dulaney. Of those, excluding Towson, Perry Hall is projected to be the most overcrowded — but its district does not border Dulaney's.
Little discussed is another overcrowded school, far from Dulaney but close to Lansdowne: Catonsville High; the school system projected in February that it is expected to grow to 560 students over capacity by 2026.
"No [real] collaboration or conversation has started there," said Stewart, whose district includes Catonsville, when asked about possible solutions for Catonsville High. But that discussion could be coming. "They will need a real solution," Stewart said.
Aside from numbers and projections, Stewart's outrage over Dulaney being prioritized comes down to a question of fairness, he said. If Dulaney were to be built in the next few years, it would be as if the school "jumped the line," he said.
Stewart, now an Arbutus resident, said the school construction debate is personally challenging because he graduated from Dulaney. But fighting for a new Lansdowne High is "the right thing to do," he said.
"This community has been waiting for quite a while for a catalyst, a big catalyst for progress, for change, for hope," he said. "If we deliver an outstanding project at Lansdowne High School, it promises to be that kind of catalyst."
Lansdowne and Dulaney, Stewart said, have often gone hand in hand in the county's debate over new schools because they face "relatively similar issues."
"If Dulaney has poor facilities, Landsdowne's are worse," he said. "If Dulaney has overcrowding, Lansdowne's is worse."
Dulaney and Towson both have large, active community groups advocating for them. But some say Lansdowne — a majority-minority school where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch — has a less vocal community.
"This is a community that has a hard time advocating for itself," Stewart said. "Most people are working and do not have a lot of free time, and are just trying to make sure their families are taken care of … If we are not advocating for these type of people first, as public servants, I do think we've done something wrong, that we've made a mistake."
The renovation or building of a new Lansdowne High School is part of the Baltimore County Board of Education meeting. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Quirk, who represents Lansdowne's district on the County Council, said the school community has done a good job of raising its profile in the past six months; when he saw Gov. Larry Hogan at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Krispy Kreme in Catonsville, Quirk said Hogan asked him about Lansdowne High.
Because Dulaney and Lansdowne are in such similar positions, Stewart said if the county builds a new Dulaney, it should build a new Lansdowne, too. "Otherwise, the patent inequity is so inescapable I'm not sure how you can take that vote."
Quirk, who is running for re-election to the County Council, said if he were asked to approve funds for a new Dulaney, he would vote no — and he expects that some of his colleagues on the council would, too.
"The county executive can't say your ZIP code doesn't matter if he's going to play favorites," Quirk said. "These things have to be based on merit. We have to take the politics out."
One of the loudest advocates for a new Lansdowne High is Baltimore Highlands resident Dayana Bergman, whose three sons are scheduled to attend the high school in the coming years. For months, Bergman brought posters to board meetings, carried bottles of brown water from schools around the county, testified before Gov. Larry Hogan and posted regularly in a Facebook group entitled "Lansdowne Needs A New High School!" But before the board meeting on April 17, Bergman said she felt defeated.
"If you ask me, we're stuck with the renovation," Bergman said. "I have been forced to give up."
Bergman said her biggest concern is a warning brought up by some school board members on April 17, that if the board does not approve Lansdowne's renovation, replacement funds will never come, and Lansdowne will get nothing.
The board can vote to request a replacement, but it would ultimately be up to the next county executive and the next County Council to decide whether to fund it. And if the board does not approve the contract, the $60 million allocated for Lansdowne could be diverted to other projects.
If the board approves Lansdowne's renovation, Stewart said, the school will have lost its chance for a new building. But if the board requests a replacement for Lansdowne and the county turns it down, Stewart anticipates it is likely that the next county executive will revisit a renovation.