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Baltimore County to develop master plan for school construction, but question of state funding lingers

While central Maryland school officials debate whether students will return to school buildings this year, Baltimore County’s school system is seeking public input on construction priorities for its Multi-Year Improvement Plan for All Schools.

Responses collected between July 1 and July 15 will be used to develop a long-term plan prioritizing school construction projects, with final recommendations split into two phases: high schools first, then elementary and middle schools.

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The survey asks respondents to weigh in on which factors should be considered when determining priorities for school projects, such as capacity relief, cost and facility condition. Respondents also are asked to rate their support for relief measures at overcrowded schools, including redistricting, new construction and consolidating underutilized schools to repurpose surplus school buildings.

A master plan for high school capital projects is expected in September, and any funding for those projects will be requested in Baltimore County Public Schools’ fiscal 2022 capital budget. Funding for future elementary and middle school projects would be requested in 2023.

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The school system has hired consulting firm Cannon Washington Inc. to assess capacity concerns, educational equity and the condition of facilities.

Long-anticipated school construction projects, like replacements for Dulaney, Lansdowne and Towson high schools, have been complicated by a combination of the coronavirus pandemic that has played havoc with the state’s economy and the fusion of Built to Learn Act funding with the passage of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Construction was to begin on Lansdowne in 2022, but elected officials have long said building the new school is contingent on state funding through the Built to Learn Act — money that won’t make its way to jurisdictions because of an amendment tying it to the passage of the Blueprint bill.

“These shovel-ready projects are stuck at a standstill without the state paying their portion,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. wrote in an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun.

Limited funding to replace or renovate the three high schools has pitted the schools against each other as their advocates jockeyed for position over which school’s needs should be addressed first.

The infrastructure at Dulaney and Lansdowne High is aging, with Lansdowne ranked as the county’s worst school building based on its 2014 facilities assessment score of 1.74 out of 5.

And Towson High is the school system’s most overcrowded school at 128.5% capacity. In a 2018 report from Sage Policy Group that focused on school overcrowding, the consultant’s top recommendation was to replace Towson High with a new school building with 1,700 seats, and to replace Lansdowne.

Recommendations set out in the multiyear improvement plan likely won’t be acted on for another five to six years, but the survey “will help inform what the school construction plan will look like,” County Councilman David Marks said.

For instance, he said, there’s still debate over whether Towson High should be replaced or renovated. And given the school’s historic landmark status, there’s some concern the school system cannot remove or make changes to the building without the approval of the county’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

But paying for construction recommendations will depend on the state legislature’s next move.

Through the Built to Learn Act passed by the General Assembly this year, Baltimore County was due to receive $420 million in school construction funding. Because of an amendment added to that law, those funds are held up without the ratification of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which establishes education reforms at an added cost of $4 billion annually by 2030, and $32 billion total by the end of the decade.

When state lawmakers reconvene, likely next year, they will be tasked with choosing whether or not to override Hogan’s veto, let the Blueprint die or vote on a reworked bill amid what Baltimore County state Sen. Chris West said may be the “early days of the Great Depression of the 21st century,” with statewide revenue loss projected to be between $2.5 billion and $4 billion per year by 2022 if job losses, lost income and reduced consumer spending go on.

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“The idea of having to raise taxes on those people to pay for $32 billion of extra spending will not be attractive to an awful lot of people,” said West, a Republican who represents the Towson area. West voted in support of the bipartisan Built to Learn Act.

Democratic Del. Eric Ebersole, a former teacher and deputy majority whip who sits on the Education Subcommittee under the Ways and Means Committee, said he feels certain “some version” of the Blueprint bill will be passed when the legislature reconvenes, allowing Built to Learn Act funding to be activated.

The legislature could opt to rewrite the Blueprint bill with consideration for Maryland’s fiscal position next year, he said. Still, a provision in the Blueprint bill that delays implementing reforms should the state’s budget projections decrease by 7.5% acts as “a safety valve” meant for unexpected economic situations like the one the state finds itself in now, Ebersole said.

The school system’s survey can be taken online at www.menti.com/7movahvrg. The survey can be accessed in eight other languages at www.bcps.org/system/myipas/.

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