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In Towson, pleas for 5th school

The Baltimore Sun

Rodgers Forge Elementary, one of Baltimore County's highest-achieving schools, and the friendly community that surrounds it were a winning combination for Dan Radek when he moved eight years ago into a rowhouse that faces the school's front lawn.

But with his older child, Elizabeth, set to start kindergarten at Rodgers Forge in the fall, Radek has concerns about a school so crowded that more and more children are being taught in portable classrooms.

"A lot of families I know moved here for the school," Radek said. "The teachers are wonderful, and they do care about the children. But eight years ago, there were no trailers. Now there are seven with plans for ... more."

That's why, Radek said, he has joined others throughout Towson, including many businesses, in displaying signs bearing the number 451 - the number of excess students packed into the area's four neighborhood elementary schools. Angry parents have organized to push county officials to provide a new school.

Crowding in schools is often triggered by a wave of new subdivisions in fast-growing suburban counties. Carroll, Harford and other counties around Maryland have felt such strains.

But Towson-area schools face an unusual problem: a generational shift that has brought young families like the Radeks to neighborhoods that were built decades ago.

"Towson is going through a new life cycle," said Mike Ertel, past-president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, an umbrella group representing the area's more than three dozen neighborhoods.

The area's older residents began downsizing or moving into retirement communities about 10 years ago, he said. Meanwhile, most of the replacements have been younger families or young couples starting families, he said. Their children are filling the area's elementary schools - Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Hampton and Riderwood - well beyond their capacity of 1,665.

Parents and school officials see the problem worsening. Projections by the school system show that the number of excess students in Towson-area elementary schools will nearly double in the next decade.

With home values having doubled or tripled in the Towson area during the recent housing boom, many young families are likely to opt for one of the hundreds of housing units planned in apartment and condominium developments near the center of town, Ertel predicted.

"There used to be a general belief that people in condos didn't necessarily have school-age children, that they were older or younger professionals" he said. "But a lot of people are raising families in condos because that's what they can afford."

However, Jeff Long, deputy director of the county planning office, said he doesn't think increased demand for classroom space will be coming from apartments and condominiums. He said planners and developers across the country have found that young professionals or young married couples typically move into these kinds of dwellings but will move soon after having their first child.

Still, people like Ertel say these families are likely to remain in Towson.

"There's an energy," he said. "Towson is a great place to be right now, other than the school problem."

Parents and community activists point to additional factors that contribute to crowding. The state-required switch from half-day to full-day kindergarten effectively doubled the amount of space needed, they say, and the strain of rising gasoline, utility and food costs has limited the ability of some parents to pay for private schools.

County officials have proposed to alleviate the overcrowding by building an addition to the Ridge Ruxton School in Towson, which serves special-education students.

But some area residents say the plan is not a long-term solution. They say the area needs another elementary school.

Cathi Forbes, chairwoman of Towson Families United, a grass-roots group formed this year to push for a solution to the crowding, said the numbers show that the areas could fill a new elementary school today and as many as three in the coming years.

"These numbers we're looking at are astronomical," she said. "But I think it's going to look worse than that."

Forbes, who launched the Web site to keep residents informed about the crowding issue, has complained that County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has been too heavy-handed in opposing a plan to build a school.

Smith, who has described the county's economic picture as tight, has instead budgeted for additions to schools as a less costly option.

School officials, for their part, have said that because they are dependent on the county for most of the system's funding - and the county executive can subtract items from the system's budget - they can make proposals but have little control of what gets funded.

Forbes and other parents have filled school board meetings and public hearings in their efforts to force officials to solve the crowding problem.

Last fall, school officials proposed building a school in Mays Chapel, near Interstate 83 in Timonium, for the special-education students who now attend Ridge Ruxton School on North Charles Street. That move would allow Ridge Ruxton to become an elementary school.

But Mays Chapel residents, worried about increased traffic, campaigned vigorously against the plan. The idea fizzled after county officials said state education officials had told them and school leaders that they "strongly discourage" building separate special-education facilities.

Recently, county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said the most viable option - though "not the best solution" - would be to build a 400-seat addition at Ridge Ruxton for regular-education students, an idea that the county executive has supported.

That plan, however, has drawn sharp criticism, especially from some Ridge Ruxton parents - two of whom have filed federal complaints and are considering a lawsuit. They said they believe that their children, who are "medically fragile," will have their educational rights compromised if they are forced to attend school with regular students.

The school board recently postponed a vote on the Ridge Ruxton expansion plan and ordered a feasibility study to look at all its options.

Parents have also tossed around ideas such as reclaiming the Bykota Senior Center, which was Towson Elementary before being closed about three decades ago, or converting Cromwell Valley Elementary Regional Magnet, which draws students countywide, to a community school with some magnet students.

Whatever the solution, families like the Radeks, who have two children, say they hope that school and county officials fix the problem sooner rather than later.

Radek, who moved to Rodgers Forge from Massachusetts, has posted "451" signs on his storm door and his car window. He said he hopes that the black and white 8 1/2 -inch-by-11-inch sheets of paper will draw the kind of attention needed to get something done.

"I want to get people thinking, 'What is 451?'" he said. "And hopefully Jim Smith or his group will see this and realize there are people behind this number."

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