In a long-anticipated final report, consultant Sage Policy Group will recommend to the Baltimore County Board of Education that the county construct new buildings for Lansdowne and Towson high schools to address capacity and facilities’ shortfalls.
The recommendations come after a monthslong study of projected overcrowding in county high schools, which are expected to have a 1,700-seat shortfall in the next decade.
The study included multiple public meetings and weighed costs and community preferences in its analysis.
“Whether BCPS leadership embraces one of the three scenarios as the solution, an admixture of the three, or some variant, our analysis reveals that there are certain pressing priorities that should be addressed as soon as possible,” Sage wrote in the report. “Given the magnitude of the endeavor and uncertainties regarding the availability of State capital funds, it is conceivable that implementation will require two decades or more.”
The recommendations will be presented Tuesday at the Board of Education meeting, the first after the county switched to a hybrid system in which some of its members are elected. It will be up to the board to decide which of Sage’s recommendations to follow, alongside County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who sets the budget.
Central corridor: New Towson High
The report’s top recommendation is a new, 1,700-seat school to replace the current Towson High, which would add 440 new seats.
The county estimates that building new high schools would cost more than $100 million each.
“Undoubtedly, there are many who would prefer a new but smaller Towson High School, but the Central area needs net new seats desperately,” the report says.
The report mentions facilities’ needs at Dulaney and Loch Raven high schools, which both received low scores in a 2014 facilities assessment. Although a new Loch Raven would provide more badly needed seats, the report says, “Towson High School is deemed to be in slightly worse shape physically.”
Yara Cheikh, an advocate for a new Dulaney High School, said news of the report gave her pause, particularly because the Dulaney community began calling for a new building four years ago. “How long do communities need to wait?” asked Cheikh, who plans to be at the school board meeting Tuesday night to testify.
“We are concerned about the timeline, because unsafe schools are inadequate,” Cheikh said.
Sage Policy’s recommendation to build a new Lansdowne High could be justified based on facility scores alone, the report said; at 1.74 out of 5 points, Lansdowne High was rated the worst high school facility in the county in 2014.
But, the report continued, there are capacity concerns in the southwest as well: Catonsville High School is projected to be overcrowded by nearly 500 students in the next decade.
“One could conceivably add seats at Catonsville, but it would be enormous and leave Lansdowne in its present state,” the report said. “In our judgment, the better solution is a new Lansdowne to which a limited number of Catonsville students would be shifted.”
The recommendation is likely to be controversial in Catonsville, where Sage Policy CEO Anirban Basu said parents told him repeatedly that they do not want their children reassigned to nearby Lansdowne or Woodlawn high schools.
During a Listening and Learning stop Oct. 2 at Catonsville High and as Baltimore County Public Schools develops a plan to address overcrowding in high schools including redistricting, interim Superintendent Verletta White said understands importance of neighborhood connections.
“Catonsville has significant overcrowding. At the same time, parents in Catonsville don’t want to be redistricted; they also don’t want a huge high school,” Basu said at a Sept. 25 public meeting. “There’s no way to add to Catonsville without creating a gigantic high school. To avoid a gigantic high school, we’ve got to move kids.”
The Lansdowne High community has been fighting for years to get the county to replace its aging school rather than renovate it, and the Board of Education turned down a renovation this year, saying it would not go far enough.
“Bringing attention to Lansdowne High School gave every small town community a voice that the deplorable conditions of the learning environment is unacceptable,” Dayana Bergman, a Baltimore Highlands resident and vocal Lansdowne High School advocate, wrote in a Facebook message. “With tenacious efforts in advocacy, it does work and we held our local leadership accountable. Sage Policy Group actually listened to everybody who participated and as challenging as it was their recommendation is actually representing the voice of the people.”
Brandon Oland, a spokesman for Baltimore County Public Schools, said of the Sage report, “There’s recommendations there, and now ultimately it’ll be up for the board to debate and decide what to do next.”
Sage Policy Group will present its findings to the board at its Dec. 11 meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m.