The Baltimore County school system's recent handling of requests for state money for its building projects was riddled with missteps, including late submissions, continual changes and lack of documentation, according to a memo from the head of the state's school construction program.
"It appears that communication between the local government and the [school system] is very poor, resulting in miscommunications, hasty changes of scope, and lack of direction on major projects," David G. Lever, executive director of the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction, wrote in the April 22 memo to the other members of the panel.
Lever's memo outlined the committee's recommendations to the state's Board of Public Works on how to parcel out $340 million in school construction funds statewide. Although the memo described problems with a handful of the state's 24 school systems, Lever's most pointed remarks were directed at Baltimore County.
He wrote that the committee's recommendation that the board fund $41 million in county projects resulted from "almost continuous communication between our offices and the [school system] over the last four months, including three site visits to clarify specific projects."
"This extraordinary level of involvement has detracted from the attention that could be given to the requests" from other school systems, Lever wrote.
Baltimore County school officials acknowledged there were several alterations to the system's construction funding requests to the state.
Kara E.B. Calder, spokeswoman for the school system, said the changes - which she described as "not unique to this year, and not unique to Baltimore County" - were the result of suggestions from county officials.
"We did make changes, and some were late in the process," Calder said in an interview Friday. "They were based on being able to address some of the needs that the county asked us to address. ... We did make changes to accommodate suggestions that the county made based on available [county] funds."
In separate interviews, Calder and Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said Friday that the county and school system work closely to determine how best to address the district's needs and priorities.
But growing community opposition to the proposed expansion of Loch Raven High School, coupled with Lever's memo, gave state officials pause, said Comptroller Peter Franchot, who is a member of the state's Board of Public Works, along with Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.
Last week, the board took the unusual step of withholding full approval of Baltimore County school officials' request for nearly $4 million to help expand Loch Raven High. Instead, the board put the money in a contingency fund until the school construction committee holds a hearing on the matter June 26 and returns with a recommendation on how to proceed.
"What we heard is that the county was not listening to the school board and the school board was not listening to the county," Franchot said in an interview after the board's Wednesday meeting. Lever "is going to get all the parties together and sort out the confusion," he said.
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 - described by some as a "haphazard project" - to alleviate crowding at high schools in the county's central and northeast regions, which includes Towson, Perry Hall and Loch Raven high schools.
Some local legislators and residents say the county should build a new high school instead, and have reminded officials about a study done five years ago that recommended a new school to ease crowding.
Some community members are hopeful that they can persuade state officials during the next month not to fund the addition. Without the state funding, Smith would need to decide whether to foot the bill - an estimated $18 million - for the Loch Raven addition out of the county's budget.
"He has repeatedly refused to build a new high school in the northeast part of the county for years, despite repeated requests," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, who lives near Loch Raven High School and is vice president of the Chatterleigh neighborhood association. "The Loch Raven addition is a Band-Aid solution to address crowding, and so is the disaster of the additions to Towson elementary schools. Bigger schools and additions are not the right solutions for our children."
The outcry against the Loch Raven addition came 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 new school is expected to be built on the campus of Ridge Ruxton School, a special-education facility on Charles Street.
Though school officials last fall recommended building a school on land it owns in the Mays Chapel area, Smith has favored additions as a more economically feasible solution.
Smith initially supported building an addition to Ridge Ruxton, but he has said that the $18 million that was budgeted for additions to help address crowding in the Towson's elementary schools can instead be used to build the new school. Smith has budgeted an additional $10 million in coming years for other elementary school additions along the York Road corridor in the Towson area.
"Everything doesn't always happen as quickly as people might like," Mohler said. "These are complex issues, when you're looking at enrollment data and locations of facilities."
But, Mohler said, the process for determining the priority of school construction needs is a "traditional" one.
"The school system puts forward requests, and the county is the funding authority," he said. "The school system and the county staff have an excellent working relationship."