The Baltimore County school board will see a community united tonight when Catonsville residents determined to save the former Catonsville Middle School on Bloomsbury Avenue present their case at the annual capital budget hearing.
Their message won't be new to most board members, who have heard before the community's cries to renovate the vacant, 70-year-old building instead of tearing it down to make room for a 600-seat elementary school.
The community is committed to a plan it hatched several years ago, and feels it has been cheated by politicians and school officials who included $9.2 million in last fall's bond referendum for the renovation and then changed their minds -- and their cost estimate -- after getting voter approval.
"This is one of the most amazing grass-roots, broad-based efforts I've ever seen," said Jim Himel, a professional planner, Catonsville resident and advocate for the school, which closed in 1987.
"There is such overwhelming support in this community" among all groups, including many businesses, which see the middle school as a boon to the Frederick Road commercial area, he said.
Last week, more than 500 residents -- enough to link arms and encircle the building -- turned out for a rally. During two weeks this summer, supporters collected more than 1,700 signatures in support of the plan, which also calls for changing the current Catonsville Middle School on Edmondson Avenue back to an elementary.
Mr. Himel said he believes the county's revised renovation cost of $14 million -- up from the original estimate -- is inflated, and that there will be a need for more middle school seats, even though school officials say their projections through 1999 indicate otherwise.
The supporters, organized by the Catonsville Community Conservation Coalition, were planning a large turnout tonight and vowed to take their argument to state officials if the board does not go along with them, Mr. Himel said.
The Catonsville project was included in the capital spending plan for the 1996 fiscal year, which began July 1. But the issue remains unsettled as the school board looks ahead at dozens of construction, repair and renovation projects for the 1997 budget.
The initial 1997 request was for $154 million, but that will be revised -- and possibly reduced by one-third -- before the board votes on it Sept. 12, said James Kraft, the school system's capital planning manager.
The budget and five-year capital plan include priorities for spending the $49 million approved in last year's bond referendum, with the long-awaited Towson High renovation at the top, along with additions to Perry Hall high and middle schools and a replacement for the aged Edgemere Elementary.
Also on that list is $4.1 million for part of the cost of a new Southwest Area Elementary, the school planned for the Bloomsbury site. It would add badly need elementary seats, Mr. Kraft said.
"We're at a point where we need a lot of money. Crowding is just not going way," he said, citing the 2,000 or 3,000 new students expected annually in county schools through 2000. And the repair needs continue because 80 percent of the schools were built before 1970.
On the priority list for the proposed budget of fiscal 1997, which will begin July 1, are a $10 million renovation to Catonsville High, $7.9 million for the new New Town Elementary in Owings Mills and $14 million for the new Nottingham Middle School near Essex Community College.
The Catonsville contingent does not begrudge any of the money earmarked for other schools and locations. "But as a taxpayer, I think it is a waste of money to tear [the Bloomsbury school] down," said Catonsville resident Kathleen Kelso.
Supporters maintain that the Bloomsbury building could be renovated for $10 million or less and would provide 1,000 middle school seats. By turning the current middle school back into an elementary, the community contends, it would gain the same number of seats as at the proposed Southwest elementary, for a small extra cost, and that those seats would be distributed more evenly around the area.
If the Southwest elementary is built, as officials propose, there will be three elementaries -- Southwest, Catonsville and Hillcrest -- within blocks of each other. Former Superintendent Stuart Berger indicated that the new elementary would be a regional magnet, drawing its students from a number of schools, most of which are overcrowded.
"I believe there is strong community support because it makes economic sense and it makes planning sense," said Catonsville resident William Bauman, who is a member of the county planning board. "It would bring the middle school back into the center of the community . . . and it puts an elementary back into an area where it's needed."
Tonight's capital budget hearing begins at 7 p.m. in the boardroom of the Educational Support Services Building at the school headquarters, 6901 Charles St. Speakers must sign up before the hearing. Board President Calvin Disney has said the hearing will end at 9:30 p.m.
MAJOR ITEMS IN 1997 BUDGET
Following are some of the major items on the Baltimore County school system's proposed 1997 capital budget:
* Construction of Nottingham Middle School $14 million.
* Renovation at Catonsville High School $10 million.
* Construction of New Town Elementary $7.9 million.
* Addition to Franklin Elementary School $1.2 million.
* Equipment for modernized Towson High School $1.2 million.
* Major maintenance $3.5 million.
* New roofs $5 million.
* Asbestos removal $2 million.
* Planning for an addition to Dulaney High School $350,000.