New Towson school put on 'fast track'

The Baltimore Sun

A day after the Baltimore County school board recommended the construction of an elementary school to deal with overcrowding in Towson, system officials said yesterday that they are in "fast track" mode, with the planning and design phase expected to take only half as long as usual.

And, officials said, the county is budgeting money to build additions at other schools in the coming years to handle the expected increase in students that even a new school won't be able to accommodate.

"We're under way," Michael G. Sines, the school system's executive director of facilities, said yesterday afternoon. "Our projections clearly indicate we don't have the seat capacity in the Towson area to accommodate the students we have. We're out of time. We need to move."

Based on the school system's enrollment data as of September 2007, four Towson elementary schools - Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Riderwood and Hampton - are a total of 451 students over capacity. That number is expected to nearly double in the coming years if the school system didn't find a solution.

After months of community debate over whether to build additions to area schools or construct a new one, county school board members voted Tuesday night to recommend the construction of a separate school that would open by fall 2010.

While it usually takes up to 15 months to plan, design and bid a school construction project, Sines said his department expects to have that work done by next spring. Construction would begin next summer.

Two key factors are expected to work in the system's favor, school officials said.

* The school would be built on land that the system owns. There is no need to find land and go through the process of buying it, Sines said.

* County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has "forward funded" $18 million in his construction budget to help the school system address crowding in the Towson area. Forward funding means the county is providing the money upfront, and in this case hopes to recoup $5.9 million from the state's construction budget in fiscal year 2010 toward the new school.

Sines said the $18 million should be enough to build a 400-seat school on the Ridge Ruxton property. He said his primary concern, in terms of funding, is the rising cost in a "volatile petroleum market," which is affecting construction costs nationally.

County spokesman Donald I. Mohler said that the county executive put that money in the budget because he "had the confidence all along" that the school system would come up with a solution to the problem.

"Sometimes things don't move as quickly as people would like," Mohler said.

In addition, Mohler said, the county executive has budgeted $5 million each in fiscal year 2010 and 2012 to build additions at other schools in the area, namely along the York Road corridor, to continue addressing the crowding issue.

Sines said that the site assessment outlines several options for adding onto other schools in the area, which he said would be taken into consideration as the system begins planning construction projects to eliminate the use of portable classrooms.

The new elementary school is expected to accommodate at least 400 students, most of whom would come from Rodgers Forge Elementary, and would be on the grounds of Ridge Ruxton School. Ridge Ruxton, a special-education school on Charles Street that serves severely disabled children, will remain open.

A site assessment, which board members reviewed during Tuesday night's meeting, spelled out three options for building at the Ridge Ruxton site, including constructing a 2 1/2 -story building on the northwest corner of the property to accommodate 400 to 500 students. This option, which school officials say they favor, would not affect Ridge Ruxton's current students, the report stated.

Another option involved constructing a smaller one-story school on the property for up to 150 students and moving the current Ridge Ruxton children to that building. Under this option, school officials would then be able to use the larger, 400-student-capacity Ridge Ruxton for regular students.

With some parents worried about an earlier proposal to build an addition onto Ridge Ruxton - two Ridge Ruxton parents had filed federal complaints to prevent the school system from forcing their "medically fragile" children to attend school with regular-education students - the site assessment specifically did not explore that option.

Some parents yesterday expressed "cautious optimism" about the system's plans to build a separate school on the Ridge Ruxton property.

"I'm watching because I want to know where on the property they are going to be able to do this," said Laura Mullen, PTA president at Ridge Ruxton. "I think we've won the battle, but maybe not yet the war."

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