At the end of a hall, past the classrooms and the lockers, is a narrow room with unpainted concrete walls and a knee-high, gray metal door.
Behind it is a passageway to a dark, musty, cavernous chamber -- buried treasure for school officials in space-hungry northwest Baltimore County.
"It's like an Egyptian tomb that's been sealed up for years," said Robert Andrews, assistant principal at Owings Mills High School, where administrators eventually hope to use the 13,000-square-foot space for classrooms.
"You may not have the gems, but you have the size," he added. "When you're talking about a school, this is like discovering gold."
In the Owings Mills area, one of Baltimore County's designated growth areas, school space is a precious commodity. Severe crowding has been projected for the area's middle schools and high schools.
At Owings Mills High, county figures show 1,051 students at the school and a projected enrollment of 1,307 students by 2000, said Pam Carter, a student data specialist.
The school's state-rated capacity is 1,213, Carter said. But the county's calculation of the figure -- 1,078 -- is a more precise reflection of the number of students the school can best handle, she added.
Scrambling to address the area's problem, county officials plan to begin construction on a $33 million high school for the Owings Mills area as early as 1999.
They also plan a 600-seat addition for Reisterstown's Franklin High -- which otherwise would be nearly double its capacity by 2005, according to projections. Franklin, which has a state-rated capacity of 1,110, had an enrollment of 1,239 in the fall.
Meanwhile, administrators at Owings Mills High say they are sitting on prime real estate in an unlikely spot -- within the school walls, beneath a wing of social studies and English classrooms.
They are asking county school officials to look behind that metal door and to envision classrooms in an area that looks like a huge, unfinished basement.
Moisture barriers cover the dirt floor. Plumbing crosses the ceiling. Concrete columns support the floor above.
"All we are saying is there is some space, and if it can be converted into classrooms, let's do it," said Principal Estelle Collins.
School officials say it is unusual to find unfinished space in schools.
Robert Conn, building supervisor at the school since it opened in 1978, recalls the contractor saying the space was designed for expansion.
As administrators and bureaucrats have come and gone, Conn has made a point of reminding them of the space behind the metal door.
"He showed it to me, and I wondered why no one had thought about it for an expansion," Collins said.
Gene Neff, acting director of facilities for county schools, said no expansion is planned at Owings Mills.
But Neff said the time might come when engineers determine whether space could be used for classrooms.
"If we get to the point where we need expansion [at Owings Mills High], it's something we would look at," he said.
Pub Date: 12/26/96