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Boundary study ordered for overcrowded Pleasant Plains Elementary in Towson

Pleasant Plains Elementary, in red, is the most overcrowded school in the central area according to Baltimore County Public Schools' 2018-2019 enrollment and capacity report.
Pleasant Plains Elementary, in red, is the most overcrowded school in the central area according to Baltimore County Public Schools' 2018-2019 enrollment and capacity report. (Courtesy Baltimore County Public Schools)

A boundary study to relieve overcrowding at Pleasant Plains Elementary School is under way after the Baltimore County School Board rejected a study for Perry Hall Middle School last week, school system officials said.

The study will look at moving students from Pleasant Plains, which is at 131% capacity, to Halstead Academy and Hampton Elementary School, according to the school system website. Changes are set to take effect July 2020.

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“Assuming a boundary study is a good next step, I’m happy to see we’re making headway there,” said Colleen Baldwin, vice president of the Pleasant Plains PTA. “I’m glad to be having the conversation.”

The move comes after a Board of Education meeting last week in which the board rejected a similar boundary study for Perry Hall Middle School, which is at 114% capacity this year.

Board member Julie Henn asked the school system to look at options for Perry Hall Middle, which uses relocatable classroom trailers, after the failure of a state school funding bill prompted County Executive John Olszewski Jr. to announce that construction of a new middle school in the northeast area of the county, which has already been designed, would be delayed until at least next year.

With the capacity relief of a new school indefinitely delayed, Henn and Councilman David Marks, who represents both Perry Hall and Towson, both advocated for a boundary study.

Chief Accountability Officer Russell Brown presented three options for Perry Hall Middle at the board meeting Tuesday: annexing an area of Perry Hall’s district to neighboring schools; completing a full boundary review process; and “staying the course” by adding more trailers until a new northeast middle school takes shape.

Brown strongly recommended the board vote to stay the course.

“In my opinion, if we think about what’s best for kids, if this were my student going to the school or my grandkid going to the school, this is the solution I’d be advocating for,” Brown told the board.

Brown’s reasoning was twofold. Because a Nottingham middle school is expected to take shape as soon as funding opens up, he said any boundary study would be temporary and unnecessarily disruptive – another boundary process could start anew as soon as the first boundaries take effect. And if his staff were to launch the time-consuming boundary review process for Perry Hall Middle, Brown said they would not also have the manpower to do so for Pleasant Plains, which is running out of space for trailers.

Pleasant Plains is the most overcrowded elementary school in the central area and the fourth-most overcrowded school in the county, according to the school system’s latest capacity report. The three schools more overcrowded than Pleasant Plains are in the design or construction phase for replacement schools; Pleasant Plains has no capital project planned.

“It infuriates me that the proposal to redistrict Perry Hall Middle twice in the next several years would come at the expense of any work to develop a plan for Pleasant Plains,” Baldwin, the PTA vice president, said in her testimony during the board meeting.

Baldwin said ensuring adequate staffing has been a strain on Pleasant Plains. A Title I school with nearly 60 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced meals, Baldwin said the school has leaned on its Title I funding to fill the gap.

Students and parents in Perry Hall Middle’s district testified at the board meeting to say that moving students out of the school would be disruptive to those students, particularly if they were to be moved again when a new school is built.

“We don’t want our children to be another temporary solution,” said parent Mark Cherry.

Ryan Riddle, PTA president at Pleasant Plains, said until the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting was posted, he did not know the school system was considering a boundary study for Pleasant Plains.

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“I didn’t know there was going to be a boundary study until there was a threat of taking one away,” Riddle said.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Henn acknowledged Brown’s concerns given the assumption that a new school will be built — but “that is a big assumption,” Henn said.

“My fear is we’re multiple years away from that, and if it doesn’t come to fruition we didn’t provide relief for kids that are struggling now,” Henn said.

Ultimately the board voted to stay the course and relieve overcrowding with trailers, then come back next year and revisit the issue if funding for the new middle school does not come through. Henn and board chair Kathleen Causey abstained; the rest voted yes.

Moalie Jose, who made the motion, said: “I really don’t like jumping the gun on decisions like this that have a domino effect on different communities, because it’s also about equity.”

Baldwin and Riddle both said that while they support starting the conversation around school boundaries, they are not sure there are enough seats to fill the need in surrounding schools. The two schools being studied, Halstead Academy and Hampton Elementary School, had 137 unused seats total in 2018; Pleasant Plains had 158 more students than seats.

“I appreciate Dr. Brown starting to indicate we’re on his radar,” Riddle said. “Hopefully that will lead to a long-term solution.”

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