Comptroller accused of politicking in visiting crowded Towson facility

The Baltimore Sun

Comptroller Peter Franchot injected himself into the growing controversy over crowded Baltimore County schools yesterday, calling the situation in the Towson area "unacceptable."

"We need an entirely new school" in the area, he said after touring Rodgers Forge Elementary, which is more than 50 percent over its enrollment capacity. "The situation here is one of the worst I've seen in the state. I can't imagine anybody visiting this school" and concluding there wasn't a problem.

The comptroller denied his visit had anything to do with politics, but a spokeswoman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. disagreed.

"The visit today was not about the children, but it was about Peter Franchot looking to get his name out in Baltimore County," said spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. "It's very clear that Franchot is engaged yet again in what appears to be another in a series of political stunts that don't benefit the children of Baltimore County."

Franchot and Smith, who will leave his post in two years after serving the limit of two terms, have increasingly been seen as potential Democratic rivals in a primary race for comptroller in 2010.

Franchot has come under fire recently from fellow Democrats for opposing Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to bring slot machines to Maryland, which is supported by the Maryland Association of Counties that Smith heads.

The comptroller said yesterday that he was not singling out Baltimore County with his tour of Rodgers Forge as well as Dogwood and Riderwood elementary schools. He said he has been visiting schools around the state in advance of the Board of Public Works' vote May 21 on $333 million in school construction funding.

Franchot promised yesterday to continue to raise questions about Maryland school crowding and whether the state should "take another look in the cookie jar" to find a solution.

He lamented that he would not have the opportunity to vote on funding for a new school in Towson when the board - made up of Franchot, O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp - meets.

The Baltimore County school board postponed a decision last month on expanding Ridge Ruxton to accommodate 400 more students, and this month voted to conduct a feasibility study of options to alleviate the crowding. The Ridge Ruxton expansion proposal, together with another plan to make smaller additions at schools along York Road, would add as many as 900 seats in the Towson area.

Some school board members have said they felt pressured by county officials to support an addition to Ridge Ruxton instead of seeking funds to build a new school.

Groups of parents at Rodgers Forge and Ridge Ruxton have panned the expansion proposal, but the county executive's office has said the less-expensive solution to build additions is favored by parents who don't want to send their children to schools outside their neighborhoods.

Franchot said he would have preferred a plan previously favored by school officials in the fall to build a new elementary school in Mays Chapel near Interstate 83 in Timonium.

An elementary school in Mays Chapel would have allowed the system to transfer Ridge Ruxton's special-education students and free classroom space for children in the Towson area. The property was favored initially because it is centrally located and would minimize travel time for the students it would serve.

But Mays Chapel residents, worried about increased traffic from school buses and staff members in the densely populated area, waged a vigorous campaign against the plan. The idea fizzled after state education officials told county school and government officials that they "strongly discourage" building separate special-education facilities.

Parents at Ridge Ruxton recently filed two separate federal complaints opposing the plan to expand the school, contending that it 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."

Alyson Bonavoglia, vice chairwoman of Towson Families United, a grass-roots parents association, told Franchot during his tour that she hoped he and state officials would bypass Smith to find a solution to crowding.

"We have felt all along that additions are not the way to go," said Bonavoglia, the mother of a first-grader and a fifth-grader at Rodgers Forge Elementary. "Additions simply don't work. We need a new school."

Kobler said Smith is committed to solving the problem, pointing out that he has appropriated $18 million for the board to build the additions in his most recent budget proposal.

She also said he has a positive relationship with members of the school board.

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