To reduce overcrowding in its high schools, Baltimore County can move school district borders. It can build new, larger schools or add to old ones and it can expand magnet programs, to get students to move to less-crowded schools voluntarily.
Sage Policy Group CEO Anirban Basu presented the three combinations of those solutions to a crowd of more than 50 people Tuesday night at Loch Raven High School at the final public input session in a study of how best to address the county’s 1,700-seat shortfall in high schools projected for 2027.
But community members, asked to give feedback on the three scenarios, said the scenarios Sage Policy Group presented did not address some critical questions: Which borders would move? Which magnet programs would be added?
“We don’t have the data to make judgments,” said Dennis McCarthy, of Towson. The Idlewylde resident said the graphics Basu presented did not show whether his two young sons when they get older would still be assigned to Towson High School under the proposals.
“I want him to go to Towson High,” McCarthy said. “If I have to move again, I will. But not everyone can afford to do that.”
As it happens, on the same night as the Loch Raven High session, interim county schools Superintendent Verletta White told parents at a “Listening and Learning” stop at Catonsville High School that she understands the importance of neighborhood connections when it comes to adjusting school boundary lines.
“We know that people buy their houses, they purchase homes many times based on the school,” White said. “It’s one of the first questions that we ask, right?”
The Sage Policy Group study has already been expanded once. Over the summer, Sage presented seven scenarios that addressed overcrowding alone. After receiving community feedback, the consulting firm switched gears to consider facility conditions as well and narrowed the options to three.
The new scenarios, all posted on the Baltimore County Public Schools website, cost between $590 million and $628 million — far more on average than the initial seven scenarios, which cost between $275M and $617M.
Those higher costs, Basu said at the meeting, reflect the results of a survey which showed county residents are willing to pay more in taxes for better schools.
As part of the feedback process, BCPS has been asking the community to take online surveys, and Sage has produced a report showing how different sections of the county responded to survey questions.
Of the 3,352 respondents to the survey, 1,123 — more than one-third — self-identified as being from the southwest region and 1,068 identified themselves as being from the central region.
The survey results show wide agreement in areas like where magnet programs should be located and how much money the county and school system should spend on constructing new facilities, building renovations and otherwise reducing overcrowding.
But two questions most set the southwest region — which includes Catonsville High School, Woodlawn High School, Western School of Technology and Lansdowne High School — apart from other parts of the county.
While the northeast, northwest and southeast sections all said the most important objective in redistricting is to reduce overcrowding, the central and southwest sections of the county responded by large majorities that impacting the fewest number of students is the most important goal in changing boundary lines.
The southwest region also stood alone in response to a question about which is most important when planning capital projects. The central, northeast, northwest and southeast portions of the county all said capacity relief for overcrowded schools is the top priority when planning capital projects.
But by a 35 percentage-point margin, respondents from the southwest area said the most important factor to them was minimizing the need for redistricting.
Karin Wilson, a Catonsville parent with children at Hillcrest Elementary School, Catonsville Middle School and Catonsville High School, said she is worried that a lot of negative and hurt feelings will carry into the eventual redistricting process.
Wilson, who attended the session at which Superintendent White spoke, said she’s concerned that the “loudest” voices in the community are the ones that BCPS is responding to — and not necessarily doing what’s best in a “holistic” way for the county.
“It already has [happened]. The first scenarios that they came out with, Woodlawn was a part of the process. Redistricting, renovation or something,” Wilson said. “In all three of the new scenarios, Woodlawn gets nothing.”
White said she understood the “angst” that can develop during a school boundary process and that communities in the Baltimore area feel a connection to their schools. White said BCPS wants to “honor” and “respect” that connection as much as possible.
“[W]e know that preserving those neighborhoods and schools, that's important to Baltimore County residents overall,” she said.
At the Loch Raven session, the issue of a taxes came up. David Harriman, of Timonium, said he would agree to a tax increase for schools because “it’s important.”
Those higher costs would bring a new building for Towson High in all three scenarios. Dulaney High and Lansdowne High would get new buildings in two of the three proposals.
But the details of those changes remain scarce. Basu explained that adding detailed information on each capacity project and redistricting proposal would be overwhelming to community members, making the scenario graphics illegible.
Some said without those details, however, that the community cannot make an informed decision.
“We don’t have enough data to know what the ideal scenario would be,” said Phoebe Evans-Letocha, a vocal advocate for an overcrowding solution that keeps Towson High School small.
Evans-Letocha questioned the enrollment projections, saying she believes they could be higher than anticipated, and said she wants to see more information about how Towson High School’s 27-acre site could hold a 2,000-seat school.
Shaveta Sharma, of Lutherville, said she would like to see a renovation to Towson High School, which her son is slated to attend after he finishes at Ridgely Middle School. But that renovation, she said, should come alongside investing in staff.
Yara Cheikh, an advocate for a new Dulaney High School building, said she would like to see scenarios with specific costs for each capital project, to make sure the projects would adequately address student needs.
Cheikh also took issue with the scenario that proposes a renovation for Dulaney High, because a renovation has already been rejected by the community and school board.
“Why would we move backwards?” Cheikh asked.
Sage Policy Group will tweak the three proposals based on community input, including the online survey, which will be available until Oct. 7. The company will submit its final recommendations to the Baltimore County Board of Education in December, Basu said.