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Parents protest school growth

The Baltimore Sun

Parents at Ridge Ruxton School have filed two separate federal complaints opposing plans to build an addition at the special-education facility in Towson to ease crowding at elementary schools in the area.

School board members learned of the actions at Tuesday night's meeting, where they voted to conduct a feasibility study of options -- including expansion of Ridge Ruxton -- to alleviate the overcrowding.

The complaints -- the first step toward possibly filing a federal lawsuit -- come amid a budget-planning season that has been especially prickly for the school system.

In recent weeks, the school board has faced teachers angered that it adopted a proposed budget that does not include across-the-board pay raises. Teachers jeered after the board's decision Tuesday to give county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston a 3 percent raise with his renewed contract.

The board last month postponed voting on the plan to relieve crowding by expanding Ridge Ruxton -- rather than building a new school -- after some members complained of "political pressure" to vote a certain way on the matter.

The parents who filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights contend that the system's proposed addition appears to violate their children's Individualized Education Programs, which direct that each of the 127 students there be taught at a "public separate day school."

A 400-seat addition has been proposed for Ridge Ruxton. Some parents, however, say a new elementary school is needed and that adding students to Ridge Ruxton could jeopardize the "medically fragile" children there.

"We want a legal finding, a judgment, that this is illegal," said Laura Mullen, whose 18-year-old daughter attends Ridge Ruxton.

Mullen is one of two Ridge Ruxton parents who filed separate federal complaints March 20.

Melanie Brockman, another Ridge Ruxton parent, said yesterday that she filed a separate complaint on behalf of her daughter, 11-year-old Kasey.

School officials, citing student privacy rights, said yesterday that they could not discuss Mullen's and Brockman's cases.

Towson Families United, a grass-roots parents group, opposes the Ridge Ruxton addition because the county cannot say whether there will be enough room on the property for an additional cafeteria, gymnasium, health suite and other common areas that the group says are necessary to serve the additional 400 students.

The school board voted unanimously to conduct a feasibility study that will examine "all options," including adding onto Ridge Ruxton, county school board President JoAnn C. Murphy said yesterday.

"Some board members said they would never be interested in that addition at Ridge Ruxton," Murphy said. "Hopefully there will be other options."

County schools spokeswoman Kara Calder said it wasn't known how soon the feasibility study would be completed, but that it was on a "fast track."

Murphy, who said a typical feasibility study can take a couple of months, added that the goal is to provide relief to the crowded schools -- Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Hampton and Riderwood elementaries -- by 2010.

Mullen, president of the Ridge Ruxton PTA, said if the school system decides to build the addition, she will encourage all Ridge Ruxton parents to seek "nonpublic placement" for their children, something she estimated could cost the school system as much as $40,000 a year per child.

"The IEP is a legal and binding document," she said. "The school system has an obligation to provide a continuum of services" for all students.

Mullen and Brockman said they hope to hear soon from federal officials regarding their complaints. According to the U.S. Department of Education's Web site, the Office of Civil Rights contacts complainants within 30 days with a determination on whether it will pursue the allegations. If the office takes up a complaint, it aims to resolve it within 180 days.

Brockman -- whose daughter has a degenerative brain disease that has left her with an extremely weakened immune system -- said she faults the school system's special-education department for not putting an end to the discussion of an addition.

"They should know this is illegal," said Brockman, adding that she would have to withdraw Kasey from the school if it includes regular-education children. "This is not a matter of being against inclusion, it's a matter of what's best for the children."

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