It was during a meeting in mid-December with Baltimore County school officials on Towson's crowded elementary schools that Cathi Forbes realized she needed to do more than sit across the table and hope they'd do the right thing.
The passion in her voice rose last week as she recalled the moment when school officials told her and a handful of other community members at the meeting that they were banking on a plan to build a school in Mays Chapel to alleviate the crowding that was forcing more students into portable classrooms each year.
She knew that the plan was opposed by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and a growing number of Mays Chapel residents, and was unlikely to win approval. She left the meeting determined to take action herself.
The next day, Forbes and a few others formed Towson Families United. By mid-January, the group had launched a Web site, towsonfamiliesunited.com, to rally community support to pressure school and county officials to either build a school or reopen one of the three that had closed in the late 1970s.
Their efforts paid off Tuesday when the school board voted to build a new school, expected to open in fall 2010, on the campus of the Ridge Ruxton School on Charles Street. The Ridge Ruxton School, which serves special education students, will remain in operation.
"I got involved because I didn't think anything was going to happen if I didn't," said a tearful Forbes.
County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he respected Forbes' leadership. "What impressed me most about the Rodgers Forge parents, and in particular Cathi Forbes, was that they were very tolerant and very patient throughout this process," Hairston said. "They've done their homework. They were looking for a genuine solution. They weren't looking for a quick fix."
State Sen. James Brochin, who represents the Towson area and was an ally of Forbes in her efforts, said, "A lot of people have a lot of great ideas, but they don't follow through. Cathi always follows through."
Forbes, 42, was raised in Cleveland and graduated in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in English and art history from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. She worked in Washington as an editorial assistant at a magazine and as an administrative assistant with an advertising agency, where she met her husband, John Patterson.
In 1990, they moved to Baltimore, where Patterson, 44, took a job with an ad agency and Forbes went to work for five years for a company that makes greeting cards.
Forbes, a stay-at-home mother whose youngest son, Sam, is in kindergarten at Rodgers Forge Elementary, says she and her husband moved in 2000 to Towson for its respected schools and friendly neighborhoods. Their son Louie, 13, also attended Rodgers Forge Elementary.
"I just wanted him to go to a nice neighborhood school," Forbes said. "Louie went six years to Rodgers Forge, and I couldn't have asked for more. The school just works. To let something that works fall apart was more than I could bear."
Soon after Towson Families United's launch, Forbes said, the group applied for a permit to stage a rally on the courthouse plaza in Towson, in view of the county executive's office. They were turning the heat on Smith, she said, because the school system depends on the bulk of its funding from the county.
Hundreds of Towson residents responded to the grass-roots campaign led by Forbes by putting up signs, contacting local officials and speaking at public hearings. Her husband, a partner with an Owings Mills advertising agency, used his creative skills to design the Web site and keep the group's blog updated.
Based on the school system's enrollment data as of last fall, four Towson elementary schools - Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Riderwood and Hampton - are a total of 451 students over capacity. That number was expected to nearly double in the coming years if the school system didn't take action.
Smith favored additions at schools in the Towson area as a less costly solution than a new school in Mays Chapel, and school officials eventually talked about building a 400-seat addition for regular education students at Ridge Ruxton.
But that plan drew sharp criticism. Two Ridge Ruxton parents filed federal complaints, saying they believe that their "medically fragile" children would suffer educationally if they were forced to attend school with regular students.
Forbes said she made a point of meeting with parents last fall to assure them that Towson Families United would not do anything that would adversely affect the students at Ridge Ruxton.
"I told them we will not, on the backs of your children, get seats for our kids," Forbes said.
Growing up, she said, she always had a drive for righting what she perceived as a wrong.
It's that nature that prompted her to establish the Coalition for Open Government in 2000 to oppose a $75 million expansion of the county's main jail center in Towson, she said. She was upset that county officials had decided to expand the jail without seeking public input.
"I lost that one," she said. "It's harder to rally people against something. It's easier to rally people for something."
She said she doesn't go looking for causes but isn't shy about getting involved when she thinks government officials aren't being as accountable to the public as she thinks they ought to be.
A few days after the school board voted to construct the new building, she smiled about what she calls a "good government issue" in the Towson school crowding controversy.
"I don't think government is bad, but I do think you need to participate," Forbes said.