Wrong fix for school crowding in Towson

The Baltimore Sun

For five years now, parents at Towson's four public elementary schools have tried to get the attention of Baltimore County public schools officials. We saw our student population - and the number of young families in our neighborhoods - growing every year. We feared that our schools would soon be too crowded for safe and productive learning.

But our concerns were continually shrugged off by a school system that reacted too slowly to our population shift, and by a county executive intent on controlling every move the school system makes.

So, by this fall, Towson will be home to three of the top five overcrowded schools in Baltimore County.

The most overcrowded, Rodgers Forge Elementary, currently enrolls 624 students, despite a state-rated capacity of 396.

What's more, there are enough students over capacity in Towson today - 451 - to immediately fill a new elementary school, which is the only practical solution.

The numbers are so staggering that school officials finally had to react. They developed a plan to relocate the special-needs students at Towson's Ridge Ruxton School to a new, state-of-the-art building on school-owned property in Mays Chapel. This would free up the existing building for use as a community-based elementary school, which it once was.

Despite assurances by school officials that this plan could not be derailed, one man managed to derail it: County Executive James T. Smith Jr. He refused to fund the plan.

As our group understands it, school system officials then proposed other solutions, such as reopening the former Towson Elementary School, now in use as a senior center. Once again, the county executive said no.

Keep in mind that Towson used to have six elementary schools, but two were closed when school-age populations declined in the 1980s.

If they can close schools when populations decrease, they need to be able to open schools when enrollments increase.

The latest plan put on the table this week falls short of that goal. School officials now say they want to build a 400-seat addition onto the Ridge Ruxton School.

But despite working for a school system, they clearly haven't done their homework.

The parents of the special-needs students at Ridge Ruxton - who weren't consulted on this plan - are vehemently opposed to the addition. We support them on this. There isn't the cafeteria space, the gymnasium space or the open space to magically add 400 students - particularly not when a medically fragile school population is involved.

What's more, a 400-seat addition doesn't come close to addressing the enrollment numbers projected by the county for our area. We're already 451 over capacity. By 2010, that number grows to 667, and by 2017, it reaches 880.

It's clear to us that this proposal is the handiwork not of the school system but of a county executive determined to find the cheapest way out. Despite huge budget surpluses in the county the past five years, he says he needs to be fiscally responsible. But spending more than $20 million on an addition that doesn't address our long-term problem is fiscally irresponsible.

It's time for county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and the Board of Education to stand up to the county executive. Mr. Smith has overstepped his authority by meddling in the decisions of professional educators.

For too long, school officials have tried to keep the peace and present a unanimous front. But they must know that this latest solution isn't in the best interests of anyone's children. It's time they said so.

Cathi Forbes is chairwoman of Towson Families United, which represents parents at Towson's four public elementary schools. Her e-mail is cathi@towsonfamiliesunited.com.

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