School officials defend renovation of Andover


County school officials defended their renovation of Andover Middle School yesterday, contending that the building cannot accommodate the 1,500 students that state capacity ratings say it can because the structure has numerous specialty rooms.

Computer laboratories and home economics rooms, for example, were not designed for teaching English literature, Kenneth Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction and student services, told the school board.

"It would not be a good learning environment," he said. "You could jam 1,500 kids in there," but "it would defeat our design," he said.

School administrators have been criticized for spending $75 million to renovate all three North County secondary schools to alleviate crowded classrooms, but ending up with about 1,400 more seats than they need when the work is done.

Andover, for example, was to have had a capacity of 900 students. Although state ratings place the actual capacity at 1,500, school administrators say it is closer to 1,050.

In addition to middle school programs, the building is to house a special education program, a daytime external high school equivalency diploma program for adults and continuing education programs. Mr. Lawson said those were not added in to make use of space that otherwise would be empty, but were planned five years ago.

He conceded that it is possible to teach subjects other than home economics in a room outfitted with a kitchen.

While member Thomas Florestano suggested the board should close Brooklyn Park "and burn it," Thomas Twombly, another board member, argued for renovating the building and moving a program originally destined for Andover to Brooklyn Park to help fill the space.

The renovations are part of the North County plan, a complicated construction arrangement in which Andover High School and Brooklyn Park Junior-Senior High are to become middle schools, each with a capacity of 900 students. But Brooklyn Park Middle School had a capacity of 1,715 as a high school that would remain about the same unless the building is reconfigured.

The state gave about $1.6 million for Andover, and the county paid the rest of the $13.4 million.

Yesterday, school officials worried that the dispute about the capacity would jeopardize the system's chances of getting money for the Brooklyn Park project and provide ammunition for the school board's financial critics, the county executive among them.

"I guess I would be more concerned about the county executive and the County Council. I think they need to be informed or educated in terms of why we should continue with that project," said Joseph Foster, board president.

The renovation of the Brooklyn Park school is expected to cost $26.2 million, according to the 1997 capital budget that county School Superintendent Carol S. Parham delivered yesterday to the board.

Last month, Bruce Emge, an assistant county auditor, suggested that spending money for a second middle school might not be wise.

"According to their own projections, they're going to be building two humongous schools that they won't be able to fill," he said. "Then we'll be sitting out here with all that unused middle school space."

But State Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel Democrat, reminded the board yesterday the North County plan was "a commitment for program equity that was made by the board and by this county."

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