School project critics emerge

The Baltimore Sun

Some Baltimore County legislators and Towson residents are urging state officials tomorrow to reject a nearly $4 million proposal to help expand Loch Raven High School, calling it a "haphazard project" and saying the area instead needs a new high school.

School and county officials want the money to build a 400-seat addition at the school on Cowpens Avenue to help ease crowding in the county's central and northeast area, which includes Loch Raven, Towson and Perry Hall high schools. The total cost of the project is estimated to be $18 million.

In arguing the area needs another high school, some residents have pointed to a study conducted five years ago that concluded a new building was the best way to alleviate crowding. In addition to concerns about traffic, some neighbors also worry about the Loch Raven High becoming too large. And they have complained that county officials have not involved the community in its decision.

"They need our input to get it right," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, who lives near Loch Raven High School and is vice president of the Chatterleigh neighborhood association.

Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said multiple public meetings have been held, including last spring and fall.

Several county legislators have joined the residents in their attempt to defeat the addition project by appealing to members of the state Board of Public Works, which is scheduled tomorrow to approve more than $340 million in school construction funds for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The move comes just weeks after the county's school board voted to build another school - rather than expand an existing facility - to ease crowding in Towson's elementary classrooms.

The county has approved $18 million to help build another elementary school on the site of Ridge Ruxton School, a special-education facility on Charles Street. Smith initially supported building an addition onto Ridge Ruxton. County officials also have budgeted $10 million in coming years for other elementary school additions along the York Road corridor.

In a letter dated May 16, Smith and county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston reiterated the system's request for $3.9 million in state funding.

"The school system's enrollment projections indicate a need for additional high school seats in the northeast and central areas," the letter states, which adds that the school was chosen for the addition because it is one the county's smallest high schools. "With this addition, Loch Raven will remain an average-size high school with a capacity of 1,375 students."

Mohler said that while the high schools are overcrowded, the numbers do not meet the state's threshold to qualify for state funding of a new school, so an addition is the most financially feasible solution.

Loch Raven High School, which was built in 1972 for about 975 students, has about 1,085 enrolled. But school system projections show the school's enrollment decreasing slightly in the coming years. Perry Hall and Towson high schools are nearly 400 students over capacity.

In a May 15 letter to the state board, state Sen. James Brochin and three other Towson-area legislators urged the panel to reject the Loch Raven request "and shelve any future requests until the county executive submits this project at a community meeting that is publicized and open to the public."

The other legislators who signed the letter were Dels. Susan L.M. Aumann, William J. Frank and Stephen W. Lafferty.

"The education of the youth in Baltimore County is far too important to us to jeopardize by authorizing a haphazard project," the letter states. "The vast majority of the constituents who live in this area are opposed to this addition."

Brochin and residents have pointed out that school officials did not initially request an addition at Loch Raven, that it was a proposal generated by the county executive.

"There's a reason the school system didn't propose this," Brochin said in an interview. "They think it's a bad idea."

In the May 15 letter to the Board of Public Works, Hairston is included among those who "believe that a new school is far better for our children than a 400-seat addition."

Kara E.B. Calder, spokeswoman for the county school system, said the school system decided to accept the county executive's suggestion to build an addition at Loch Raven because it was outlined as the "only option available based on funding."

She said Hairston's May 16 letter to the state Board of Public Works was written to confirm the system's need for "additional high school seats."

"He has said additions aren't always the best option for schools," Calder said. "Rather than reject the funding, the [school] board approved the project."

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