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Letter seeks state support


Still hoping that the Howard County Board of Education will not build an elementary school next to a former landfill, the Maryland PTA is asking for the governor's help to make it harder for districts to choose potentially unsafe sites for new schools.

State PTA members Wanda Hurt and Lisa Breece sent a letter yesterday to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's office, asking him to support the parents' organization in its efforts.

"Most of this came about because of the northeast elementary school site," said Hurt, vice president for legislation for the Maryland PTA. "I was at a meeting and someone said we have no state guidelines on the siting of schools, on where to put them. And I thought, 'Well, that's terrible.' "

The Howard County school district has proposed building the county's 38th elementary school on a donated parcel adjacent to the former New Cut landfill in Ellicott City. Engineers have discovered potentially harmful levels of methane gas and other contaminants on the site, but have assured district officials that the property still is viable.

Parents and community members have expressed concern about the hazards that could exist or develop at the site, and school board members have said they will not vote to approve the property until they are sure it is safe for children.

But, Hurt said, that's not enough for the Maryland PTA, which has about 242,000 members.

"That site may be, by today's standards, safe, but by tomorrow's standards, not safe," Hurt said. "We need guidelines on where we put these schools."

Hurt - who essentially is a lobbyist for the Maryland PTA - plans to try to use the governor's backing to push for a bill to establish guidelines for school sites in the next legislative session.

She said she has senators and delegates in mind to approach about introducing the legislation, regulations or policies.

"So when we go forward, if we have the governor's support, that will really help us," Hurt said. "I don't think we need him to come testify or anything. If we even get a letter from him, that'll be great."

National PTA guidelines suggest that schools should be free of health, safety and environmental hazards, Hurt said. But only one state, Michigan, has legislation backing that. In Michigan, schools cannot be built less than 1,000 yards from a landfill, Hurt said.

"Even with all the research that's being done about that site in Howard County there's still not a whole lot of information," said Breece, safety and environment chair of the Maryland PTA. "The lack of information about what's in these landfills - because they don't have a clue - kind of makes you concerned."

Breece said that just because land is becoming scarce because of development doesn't mean school districts should accept just any site for a school, even if it's needed as badly as the one in Howard's severely crowded northeast area.

"The land around us is diminishing because they're building so much, so the only thing that's left over is property that people don't want," Breece said. "Well, we don't want second-best for our kids. We want them to be safe and healthy."

Hurt said she and Debbie Bostian, president of the Maryland PTA, plan to arrange a meeting with Glendening after he receives the letter.

"Let's start looking at where we put our schools and try to make them as safe as we can for our children," she said.

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