Parents want addition built at crowded Towson elementary

Despite the opening of a new elementary last week, Baltimore County officials have not resolved long-standing overcrowding problems at Towson elementary schools, including one where an addition isn't expected for two years even though eight trailers are being used as classrooms.

Hampton Elementary opened with 200 extra students squeezed into a facility built to hold 307. Parents said they were told construction on an addition would begin this summer, but the county says there was a miscommunication and taxpayer approval is needed for a $19 million addition, which will be on the ballot in November. Donald Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said construction should begin in summer 2011.

"I think overcrowding is a community issue. We are sending a message about how much we value our children when we let the school become overcrowded by 60 percent," said Yara Cheikh, vice president of parent education and legislation of the PTA and mother of three students at the school.

The fourth- and fifth-graders at Hampton are using classrooms in eight trailers next to the school, she said, but that is only part of the problem. The school's basic facilities and common spaces are being severely taxed; the school doesn't have enough bathrooms or a cafeteria, gym and library large enough to handle the extra students, she said.

Towson Families United, founded several years ago to resolve the crowding issue, contacted the state when the organization and parents at Hampton were told in July that construction of an addition, which had been expected to begin this summer or fall, had not received state funding.

David Lever, executive director of Maryland's school construction program, wrote in an e-mail to Towson Families United that the project was not funded because his office was told by the school system that the county government would not be able contribute its share of the construction costs.

So, Lever said, the state skipped over Hampton and went further down the county's list of priorities for school construction projects, giving the money to high schools at Dundalk and Milford Mill Academy. Lever said if the project is important to the county, it could go forward and build it ahead of getting the state construction dollars, as it has done in the past with renovations and an addition to Parkville High School.

The fact that the high schools were given priority concerned Towson parents, who point out that Hampton Elementary is the most overcrowded school in the county.

"I thought the county government and the school system were on the same page. I thought they understood how dire the situation was," said Cathi Forbes, chair of Towson Families United.

Mohler said the county never intended to fund the project this year. With taxpayer approval after voting in November, he said, the project should be started next summer and completed in 14 months, in time for the beginning of school in 2012.

Mohler said the county chose to have state funding go to the high schools, because the county had already paid for the work on several high school projects before getting state money and needed to use the state funds to essentially be reimbursed.

He said the county has "massive needs" for school construction. In addition to a new building at Dundalk High and an addition at Milford Mill, Carver Center for the Arts will be getting a new building.

But Cheikh said the county could have decided to go forward with the Hampton addition earlier, as it did with other schools. The county's enrollment projections showed the number of students at the school would continue to climb, though it did not predict as rapid an increase as has taken place.

The same scenario played out at Rodgers Forge Elementary School, she said, where enrollment reached 718 last year for a building with a capacity of 396. West Towson Elementary opened Aug. 30 to alleviate crowding at Rodgers Forge. Riderwood and Stoneleigh elementaries in Towson are also over capacity.

"Somewhere there was a massive miscommunication," she said, or a "lack of transparency."

Cheikh, who said she does not want to play a blame game, added "we just have to move forward."

Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the county schools, said the school system lists its priorities for what it wants funded by the state and county, but ultimately doesn't have control over what projects get money. "It is up to the county and the state to decide what to fund," he said.

He said he doesn't know why the parents thought the building would be built this summer. "Perhaps people assumed they would be funded by the county and the state," he said.

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