The state Board of Public Works took the unusual step yesterday of withholding full approval of Baltimore County school officials' request for nearly $4 million to help expand Loch Raven High School - a move that fell short of calls to reject the project outright.
The board's conditional approval was a response to mounting questions from local legislators and residents about the school system's plans to build the addition to alleviate crowding at high schools in the county's central and northeast regions.
Some local legislators and residents say the county should construct a new high school instead.
The board put $3.9 million for the Loch Raven project in a contingency fund until the Interagency Committee on School Construction holds a hearing on the matter June 26 and returns with a recommendation on how to proceed.
The money was part of the final allocation of $340 million in state school construction funding, including $41 million for Baltimore County, approved by the board for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Comptroller Peter Franchot said in an interview after the board's meeting that it was "highly unusual" to have local leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, pleading with the state to not allocate money for a project.
"Most jealously compete for dollars," Franchot said. "This project was singled out because the local elected officials complained vigorously. ... Obviously, there's a problem."
The board is composed of Franchot, Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.
Franchot said the $3.9 million remains in the school construction budget for Baltimore County's use, but the state's school construction committee must re-evaluate the Loch Raven project.
"Right now, it's in limbo," Franchot said.
County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who was not at the board's meeting, said he would await official word from the state and "respond to whatever requests" the state makes.
Opponents of the Loch Raven proposal said they were pleased with the board's decision, even if it wasn't a complete rejection of the project.
"We are very gratified that the problems with the planning and funding of the Loch Raven addition are going to be more thoroughly discussed at many levels of government," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, who lives near Loch Raven High School and is vice president of the Chatterleigh neighborhood association. Taylor-Mitchell has led the community's effort to kill the project.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents the Towson area, called the board's decision "the perfect compromise."
"We can open up the process in the way it should have been done in the first place," Brochin said.
School and county officials including County Executive James T. Smith Jr. say they want the money to help build a 400-seat addition at the school on Cowpens Avenue. The total cost of the project is estimated to be $18 million.
David G. Lever, executive director of the state's school construction committee, said that Loch Raven's enrollment is projected to decline but that the decision to build an addition was based on enrollment projections at nearby schools, including Towson and Perry Hall high schools. Families in the area have expressed concern that students from other crowded schools would be sent to Loch Raven.
Several County Council members and state legislators testified against the proposal during yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting, alongside community members. They have also peppered the panel in recent days with written appeals, complaining that the public has been left out of the planning process.
The effort came 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 a 400-seat addition onto Ridge Ruxton. County officials also have budgeted $10 million in coming years for other elementary school additions along the York Road corridor.
Smith, who supports the proposed Loch Raven addition, did not attend yesterday's meeting.
Wynee E. Hawk, state affairs director for Baltimore County, said that there were several opportunities for public input and that the project was approved under the normal procedures. She provided a timeline showing that the addition was part of Smith's annual capital budget submitted in April 2007, and that the County Council held public meetings during which the proposal was considered.
"To suggest that the county submitted this project without input is just not correct," Hawk said.
Del. Susan L. M. Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican, and County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, said that in contrast with actions of previous years, the county budget didn't separate school projects. Instead, McIntire said, they were lumped together in one item so that people weren't aware of the proposal for the Loch Raven addition.
County officials have said the projects were grouped into a single line item to give the school system greater flexibility in the spending of its construction money.
Cathi Forbes, chairwoman of Towson Families United, apologized to the board for airing "Baltimore County's dirty laundry" and complained about a lack of cooperation between Smith's office and the school board.
Forbes, who recently spearheaded the effort against the proposed addition at the Ruxton School, said the proposal to expand Loch Raven High is a short-term solution to overcrowding.
"This is a Band-Aid," she said.