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‘Disappointed more than anything’: Towson leaders take aim at revised Baltimore County school improvement plan

The Baltimore County Public Schools system is facing backlash from elected officials and community advocates in the Towson area for its recently revised multiyear improvement plan for all schools, which addresses school construction needs.

Most notably, the plan omitted long-anticipated school construction projects such as replacements for Towson and Dulaney high schools. The infrastructure of the two high schools is aging, as Towson High was built in 1949 and Dulaney High in 1964.

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“I’m disappointed more than anything else,” said Baltimore County Council member David Marks. “Here’s the question: What will it require for Baltimore County to prioritize Dulaney and Towson high schools?”

Last year, the county and school system hired consulting firm CannonDesign to develop a master plan for school construction priorities by assessing capacity concerns, educational equity and the condition for each school in the county, said Dr. David Lever, a consultant on the project who previously served as executive director of the public school facilities program at the state level.

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Responses to a countywide community survey were used to develop a long-term plan for prioritizing school construction projects, with final recommendations split into two phases which prioritized high schools in fall 2020, then elementary and middle schools afterward.

“These recommendations from CannonDesign provide a comprehensive, equitable and fully funded road map to accomplish just that,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in a statement last month.

The project involved a number of components, with results coming together in the spring to develop a comprehensive recommendation that called for $2.5 billion in renovations for all county schools in the next 15 years; county Board of Education members heard a presentation of the study July 13.

State Sen. Chris West, who represents the Towson area and portions of northern Baltimore County, took issue with the report including schools that have been built new or substantially renovated during the Olszewski and former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz administrations.

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“Proposing to spend money on such schools as Dundalk High School and Colgate Elementary School and Pikesville High School and Carver and Stoneleigh and Hereford High School, while scrimping to give short shrift to decrepit older schools, just doesn’t make any sense to me,” West said.

The study also concluded that none of the 24 county high schools required replacement, but instead should collectively undergo renovations and expansions that could cost up to $1.2 billion.

“I am extremely disappointed that the ... recommendations so far appear to have predetermined the outcome in favor of renovation and addition for these schools,” County Council member Wade Kach wrote in a recent op-ed to The Baltimore Sun.

The Baltimore County Public Schools recently revised multiyear improvement plan for all schools, which addresses school construction needs, does not include plans for a long-anticipated replacement of Towson High School.
The Baltimore County Public Schools recently revised multiyear improvement plan for all schools, which addresses school construction needs, does not include plans for a long-anticipated replacement of Towson High School. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Towson High was listed as a top recommendation for a new school facility with 1,700 seats in a 2018 capacity report conducted by economic and policy consulting firm Sage Policy Group.

Dulaney is the only high school that doesn’t have central air conditioning in the county, and it has had no significant upgrades in the past 60 years, said Yara Cheikh, president of Dulaney’s Parent Teacher Student Association.

Feasibility studies have been under way for Towson and Dulaney, Marks said, but they have more to do with site constraints and an overall blueprint for county schools.

“What’s frustrating for me is that the blueprint looks globally at almost every school in the county and it recommends improvements for almost every facility,” he said.

Marks believes this formula “dilutes” the importance of prioritizing the high schools that need replacements the most.

“For the past 10 years the county has already been focusing on elementary and middle schools, and my hope has always been that this would provide clear direction on the high schools,” he said. “There’s a relative new high school in [the] Dundalk area but nothing in the central core of the county. That doesn’t sound like equity to me.”

Cheikh said the Dulaney community is especially “bewildered” by these turn of events.

“We should be concerned about the lack of details that have been presented to the board,” she said. “I understand that there are needs across the county, but we can’t go backward and just put additions and renovations in schools that warrant new construction. So [the plan] is actually regressive in nature. These are policies of the last century in Baltimore County; we can’t go backward,” she said.

State Del. Cathi Forbes, who represents the Towson area and is a longtime community and education advocate, echoed similar sentiments.

“I think that it is setting Baltimore County back to a time when we’re doing limited renovations on buildings that are falling apart,” Forbes said. “I hope that the school board won’t approve the recommendations because they don’t define the scope of the project at all.”

Lever said CannonDesign analyzed over-enrollment, educational enhancements and “legacy” projects that were already in the capital improvement program, including Lansdowne High School which has plans to be replaced with a new state-of-the-art facility.

“We came out with a set of 28 addition projects that would need to be done in order to relieve the projected overcrowding — not the overcrowding for today but what the overcrowding projections will be in the 2026-27 school year,” he said.

Lever also said a physical assessment determines whether a school is replaced or renovated, regardless of the age of the structure.

“The assessment showed that there [was] not any facility in the school system that was in such bad condition that it warranted replacement,” he said. “Age is a surrogate for condition because you can have a very old school which is in excellent condition, and you can have a relatively new school which is in terrible condition. So age by itself can be very misleading.”

It’s not a “subjective” decision, Lever said, it’s a very “objective” one.

“This does not mean that every facility would be 100% renovated. It means it would receive ‘critical’ improvement to building systems and educational spaces,” he said. “[These are] very hard choices because the pot of money is limited, and the choice that we’re recommending is that they not take ... ‘premium projects’ [which] means the replacement of existing facilities.”

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Last month, Olszewski said the recommendations will help the county fulfill obligations to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation, which includes a contingency plan for expanding prekindergarten in Baltimore County.

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“It is so unknown what the requirements are going to be. We really can’t incorporate that into our recommendations as it stands now for $2.5 billon over a 15-year period,” Lever said. “Once the parameters are well-known, we estimate that would add about $146 million to the total and that might extend this total program by one or two years.”

CannonDesign is expected to issue a final report on the multiyear improvement plan, with an estimated timeline for carrying out the projects, in September.

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