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Catonsville residents vigilant in effort to save ex-school from demolition


They called it a vigil, but it was more like stoop-sitting -- a group of Catonsville residents hanging out on the steps of the former Catonsville Middle School on a sunny Saturday, talking about what's on their minds.

And that, they said, is what made it a vigil. The half-dozen people on the scene yesterday were telling politicians and county school officials that they want the 70-year-old building on Bloomsbury Avenue renovated rather than razed.

About 75 people turned out for the vigil's candlelight start Friday night, many of them new to the cause, organizers said. A small contingent stayed through the night, and shifts of volunteers yesterday kept company with the building they're trying to save.

"These events to most elected officials . . . are watermarks of how the community is feeling," said Jim Himel, an unofficial leader of the preservation effort and one of the all-nighters. "The petitions, the events, speak for themselves. . . . This is the sentiment."

The school system wants to tear down the former middle and high school, which now houses several community programs, and build a new 600-seat elementary school within a mile of two other elementary schools.

The system then wants to build an addition on the Catonsville Middle School on Edmondson Avenue, which until the mid-1980s was Westchester Elementary.

The Baltimore County Board of Education is expected to make a decision at its Tuesday meeting.

Bloomsbury supporters delivered 2,000 petitions to the board this week asking that it be renovated instead of torn down. Two weeks ago, more than 500 people turned out for a rally.

"I don't get involved in community affairs, but I'm involved in this," said Peter Medinger, one of yesterday's morning-shift volunteers, and a 21-year Catonsville resident. "When I started reading about this, it made no sense. I have two children -- 16 months, and 4 years. They will be affected."

Although county officials still support the recommendations of the school board to tear down the old building and replace it with a new elementary school, Democratic Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley asked the board this week to re-examine the costs.

The school system puts the cost of renovation at $4- to $5 million higher than an estimate prepared for the community group by an independent consultant.

The school system is taking an other look at its own cost estimate, said Keith Kelly, executive director of capital improvements. In fact, during yesterday's vigil, two surveyors were at work updating a 1970s survey of the premises. The subcontractors said they were hired by the county schools.

What makes sense to the Bloomsbury supporters is to renovate that school as a 1,000-seat middle school and turn the present middle school back to an elementary school. They say it's cheaper and spreads out the elementary seats.

School and county officials, who were originally supportive of the renovation plans, say tearing down the building also makes sense because:

* The Catonsville area needs elementary, not middle school, seats.

* They estimate the hulking Bloomsbury building will cost $14 million to renovate, not $9 or $10 million, as they originally said.

* The state has indicated it would not contribute any money to a renovation, but would consider contributing $2 million for a new elementary and more for a middle school addition.

* In a feasibility study done nearly 20 years ago, the Bloomsbury building was not recommended for renovation because of its poor condition even then. "And does anybody think the building's gotten better?" asked Faith Hermann, the school system's executive director of facilities.

But members of the community are unwilling to let go of the renovation plan.

"We live in such a disposable world," said volunteer Mary Henn. "It's easier to throw something away. And whatever you build will never be as solid as what's here now."

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