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Some advocates for a new Towson High School reject recommended renovation in lieu of replacing the school

File picture of the buildings at Towson High School.
File picture of the buildings at Towson High School. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Some Towson-area elected officials are not satisfied with a recent study that recommended building an addition at the aging, severely overcrowded school in lieu of replacing it, and say the construction would not go far enough in solving its longstanding issues.

In the Multi-Year Improvement Plan for All Schools, a study of construction priorities funded by the county and the school system, consulting firm CannonDesign recommended that schools that need structural upgrades and more capacity be renovated with additions rather than replaced.

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The firm made an exception for Lansdowne High School, since designs for a replacement school in the southwest part of the county are well underway. In its other recommendations, which in the study’s first phase focus on just the county’s 24 high schools, CannonDesign ranked Sparrows Point High as highest in need, followed by Towson, Lansdowne, Dundalk, Catonsville and Dulaney high schools.

As part of the 10-year school construction plan, 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.

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The recommendations prioritize $100 million in “quick launch” additions, after Lansdowne High’s replacement, at Towson, Loch Raven, Dundalk and Patapsco high schools.

CannonDesign recommends renovating Towson High’s cafeteria and gymnasium and an addition that makes room for 500 more students at the 71-year-old school, which parent advocates have long pushed to be replaced.

But Julie Henn, vice chair of the Baltimore County Board of Education and whose district includes Towson High, is skeptical about the $100 million price tag on the four schools, and isn’t sure the size of the school grounds would accommodate a new addition anyway.

“I’m concerned about the athletic fields, any [school trailers] that would need to stay on the property,” she said.

The relocatables, or portable classrooms, in use at Towson High School.
The relocatables, or portable classrooms, in use at Towson High School. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

There are also significant issues like electrical problems that Henn does not expect would be remediated through an addition.

“A replacement would be more appropriate for Towson High based on the condition and the need for seats,” she said.

Towson High is the most overcrowded school in the county, according to enrollment numbers projected by CannonDesign, and was 128%, or 359 students, over its state-rated capacity of 1,260 in 2019.

That number climbs to a projected 161%, or 768 students, over its capacity by fall 2028, according to school system estimates.

Henn said she asked for information on the viability of redistricting before the pandemic, and will continue to vet that option once the pandemic has subsided and a sense of normalcy has been re-established.

But while multiple schools adjacent to Towson High are below capacity, there is not enough extra capacity in the region to completely relieve the crowding.

The CannonDesign “misses the mark about the appropriate strategy for dealing with overcrowding at high schools from central to eastern Baltimore County,” Councilman David Marks wrote.

Parents at both Towson High and Perry Hall High largely do not support more additions to their schools, he said.

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“This would be the third addition at Perry Hall High School, already one of the largest schools in Baltimore County,” Marks added.

But Amy Kline, president of Towson High’s PTSA, has grown disillusioned with the process altogether.

She also said she believes construction work on Lansdowne, Dulaney High School in Lutherville-Timonium and Catonsville High School should come before Towson High because the need is greater at those schools.

“We have these studies, we have these conversations, people fight," she said. “Then nothing ever gets decided.”

Towson was also among schools with the worst score on facility conditions in the CannonDesign study, following Lansdowne and Perry Hall High, where a 225-seat addition or renovations were also recommended by the firm.

In a 2018 capacity report by Sage Policy Group, the firm’s top recommendation was a new, 1,700-seat school to replace the current Towson High, which would add 440 seats.

But that report was focused on the issue of capacity alone, and didn’t take educational adequacy and equity into account.

In a letter to Superintendent Darryl L. Williams, Marks took issue with the Sage report recommendations being shelved.

The Multi-Year Improvement Plan for All Schools recommendations are nonbinding, meaning elected officials are free to decide which high schools to prioritize.

If an addition at Towson High came to the board for discussion, Henn said she would not support it at this point.

The school board already has submitted its fiscal 2022 capital funding request to the state, and the multi-year plan recommendations had no impact on the request, according to the school board.

Included in the capital budget request to the state is $63.4 million to replace Lansdowne High.

But it’s uncertain, anyway, when the school system would see the necessary construction dollars, and local officials say more school construction hinges on funding from the Built to Learn Act. That funding has been stalled because of an amendment that prevents the bill from taking effect until the Kirwan Commission education funding legislation becomes law.

The Interagency Commission on School Construction has said funding for county schools will be around $31.5 million as the state braces for a $1 billion shortfall this fiscal year.

The county gives about $40 million annually to school construction projects.

There’s also the question of whether the CannonDesign recommendations align with the interagency commission criteria that determine which schools get prioritized for state funding, which would affect which projects the school board would seek to address first.

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And then there’s the forthcoming recommendations of the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Task Force, on which Henn sits. The group seeks to “balance development with the pressure that growth places on school capacity,” and gives recommendations on more stringent conditions for developers to meet when building in crowded school districts.

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Henn said she’s not entirely sure how the APFO recommendations, expected at the end of December, will meld with CannonDesign’s. But both Henn and Kline said they’re skeptical the data and formula used to determine enrollment projections, which has a huge bearing on school construction priorities, aren’t entirely accurate and need to be reworked.

That’s one of the issues the APFO is looking at, Henn said.

Kline said virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic may cause parents and school officials to think differently how future school construction should look.

“Do we want to continue this traditional 21st century school building that we’re working on, or do we need to have a new model based on everything that has changed?” she said.

Kline doesn’t know what that might look like, but said “now perhaps we need to take into consideration that we might go to some types of hybrid [learning] models,” and having classrooms that are “more accessible during times of crisis."

She said the pandemic has shed light on issues of equity that already existed, and that parents should not believe things will return entirely to the way they were before.

“People are really suffering,” she said. “Do we need to rethink the way we educate?”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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