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Baltimore Co. juggles school construction plans


Squeezed by two years of budget cuts, Baltimore County's long-range school construction plans are being tossed and turned like bacon bits in an omelet.

First, County Executive Roger B. Hayden imposed a series of cuts and delays that left the school department scrambling. Late last week, the planning board scrambled the school board's latest plan even further.

Two of the planning board's changes directly conflict with a vote last month by the county council, which approved a budget transfer to spend $2 million to remove asbestos from the board's finance administration building and $200,000 to begin the $3 million conversion of the former Cromwell Elementary from office space back into a school.

Another change recommends replacement of the Essex Elementary school with a larger building on the same site, even though a $50,000 study of the issue hasn't been completed.

The most dramatic changes would:

* Authorize $4.8 million to quickly build a new, larger 500-seat Essex Elementary in 1994-1995 to replace the 68-year-old building now on that site.

* Build a new Mays Chapel Elementary in Timonium one year earlier than the board planned, starting in 1994.

* Leave Cromwell as an office building.

* Abandon the current business and finance building at the school department's Greenwood headquarters on North Charles Street and rent office space.

* Abandon plans to build a new administrative building at Greenwood.

* Build a new, 1,100-seat Nottingham Middle School in Rosedale in 1997-1998 instead of building an 800-desk White Marsh Middle school next to Perry Hall Middle School.

* Speed up an addition planned for Dulaney High to 1996-1997.

* Make $1.5 million worth of roof repairs starting July 1, instead of waiting to spend that money one year later.

Keith Kelley, associate county school superintendent for physical facilities, said he had not seen the changes. They are so dramatic, however, that school Superintendent Dr. Stewart Berger and board members "will be shocked," he said.

Dr. Berger and board Chairman Rose Hellman were out of town and unavailable for comment yesterday. Board Vice President Calvin Disney declined to comment.

The planning board's recommendations now go to Mr. Hayden, who is to review them and present his final plan to the county council in mid-April. Whatever changes Mr. Hayden and the council make this spring will likely stick for two years under a new system that examines capital spending every other year instead of annually.

The board said there is little reason to spend $3 million to change the old Cromwell Elementary in the Towson area from office back to school space, since the county spent $1.5 million to convert it the other way just six years ago.

To accommodate those students, the planners recommended building Mays Chapel sooner than scheduled, and building an addition to Hampton Elementary as well.

The board also said it makes no sense to spend $2 million to remove asbestos from the board's business and finance building when the recession has left the county with plenty of cheap, empty offices.

Building a new Nottingham Middle School would provide more athletic fields in that fast-growing area, the board said, while the school department's alternative -- a new White Marsh Middle School on the grounds of the current Perry Hall Middle -- would eliminate half the existing ball fields.

Shifting timetables and deferred repairs have become more frequent in the last two years, as state aid cuts and lower revenues have forced Mr. Hayden twice to order delays or cutbacks in borrowing for capital projects approved by the voters.

Mr. Hayden has argued that delaying the sale of bonds cuts the amount of interest the county must pay from its operating budget and helps preserve the county's high bond rating, which saves on future interest payments.

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