Baltimore County Public Schools officials told a packed auditorium of Towson-area parents Tuesday night that they planned to recommend opening a new school at the site of the former Loch Raven Elementary and expanding Cromwell Valley Elementary as short-term solutions for overcrowded conditions at central area elementary schools.
However, despite a lengthy input process that began last spring, with a pair of meetings last spring members of the communities impacted by the plan say they weren't brought into the process until the 11th hour after plans had already been finalized.
"It sounds to me like planning for this has been going on for quite some time," Gary Herwig, president of the Associates of Loch Raven Village Inc., said during the Oct. 28 meeting held at Carver Center for Arts and Technology. "My community has been given no opportunity to participate in the planning process — to participate meaningfully in the decision-making process."
County schools outlined the the three-pronged approach to stemming over-capacity issues in the central area in a press release Wednesday which also included its proposal regarding overcrowding at southwest area schools. The release also stated that its FY15 plans include funds to build a new 700-seat school on Lyons Mill Road in Owings Mills. All proposals will be submitted to the Board of Education at its Nov. 5 meeting.
The release stated that a number of factors were used to evaluate proposed solutions such as the net seat gain, the number of high priority schools within a 2-miles radius, site ownership/control, historic status of property, present use of existing site, and acreage available.
Five-hundred new seats are planned for the site of Loch Raven Elementary, which has been closed for 31 years and currently houses a recreation center, and which would become a commuter school for students who currently attend Halstead Academy.
Halstead Academy would be closed and renovated as a magnet school for future use. Additionally, Cromwell Valley Elementary would receive a 289-seat addition and renovation, and transition from a full magnet program to a neighborhood school with a magnet component.
During Tuesday's meeting, which was conducted by BCPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Sines and featured a presentation from GWWO Inc./Architects, the consultant hired for the countywide process, GWWO Principal Paul Hume detailed how they arrived at the current proposal.
Hume said they studied every building and potential solution in the area over the summer, and took into account feedback from several spring input meetings BCPS held for parents at West Towson, Stoneleigh, Hampton and Rodgers Forge elementaries.
Potential solutions proposed at those meetings — building a new school at the Rodgers Forge Elementary site or one at the Bykota Senior Center — were deemed less effective solutions to overcrowding than the final proposal.
Instead, the three-pronged approach with Halstead Academy, Cromwell Valley, and Loch Raven elementaries was first discussed at a small stakeholder meeting in late August. No one from Loch Raven Village — where the former elementary school is located — or Halstead or Cromwell Valley was invited, Herwig said.
"I understand that the superintendent has a job to do — I do," Herwig said Wednesday. "But I feel like we've been left out and lied to and that really bothers me. This school isn't even on a major road. This school is in the heart of our neighborhood, and we've had no opportunity to participate."
Herwig said he found out about the proposal from Councilman David Marks, who said at the time that Herwig should be involved in the process. On Oct. 8, Herwig sent a letter on behalf of the organization to Kamenetz opposing construction at the Loch Raven Elementary site, though BCPS officials still hadn't briefed Herwig on the plan, he said.
Herwig said Dance finally called on Oct. 22 to tell him the proposed plans, and Herwig sent a letter to Dance detailing the neighborhood's opposition a day later.
"I cannot believe the county school systems actions are going to have such an impact on my little neighborhood … and I've had zero opportunity other than the meeting last night to participate in the process," Herwig said Wednesday.
Mychael Dickerson, chief communications officer for BCPS, said the plans have been constantly changing since the spring and that no one was intentially left out of the process.
"It's not that we had plans that we didn't present earlier because we didn't want to," Dickerson said Wednesday.
During the meeting Tuesday, several other communities spoke out against both the plan and the process . Residents of Loch Hill and Idlewylde organized earlier this year to combat rumors that those neighborhoods would be redistricted out of the Stoneleigh district.
"We're happy that [BCPS is] sharing a little more detail with how they got to this particular proposal," Allysha Lorber, president of the Loch Hill Community Association said in an interview Wednesday. "But at the same time, I feel like the process was somewhat flawed because public involvement is an important part of equation and affected communities were not brought into the process."
Lorber said all three parts of the plan could have "great benefit to communities on the east side," but she reiterated a common refrain from the series of meetings: "The benefits are limited to the schools that are very overcrowded on the west side of York Road."
Two of the most severely overcrowded schools in the Towson area are West Towson Elementary and Rodgers Forge Elementary. The two schools were a combined 143 students over capacity in 2012-2013, according to BCPS data.
"The audience left last night with questions about whether this plan puts seats where we need [seats]," Cathi Forbes, a leader of the Towson Families United advocacy group, said Wednesday. "The show of community support shows that people really care about their communities in the different communities that showed up."
Only one group represented at the meeting Tuesday expressed outright support for the plan. Danielle Watkins, president of the Halstead Academy PTA, told the crowd that her school community overwhelmingly supports the project because of the infrastructure improvements it would provide.
Superintendent Dance will recommend the central area proposal as well as one for the southwest area to relieve overcrowding to the Board of Education at its the board's Nov. 5, meeting. All of the projects for the southwest and central areas are tentatively scheduled to be complete by the beginning of the 2016-2017, the BCPS press release stated.