County needs fresh thinking on schools

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County has some of the best schools in Maryland. Newsweek recently recognized 10 county high schools as among the top 5 percent in the United States. Unfortunately, there are challenges on the horizon that undermine the strength of our schools and the vitality of our communities.

School overcrowding is the most serious of these challenges. The debate over whether to build an addition at Loch Raven High School is the culmination of nearly a decade of frustration with the way Baltimore County plans and builds its schools.

In 2003, the Baltimore County Board of Education recommended a new high school to reduce overcrowding between Towson and Perry Hall. Back then, the county was flush with revenue that could have been used to build a school. Instead, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. pushed additions to existing sites. Today, there is limited revenue to build a school, and valuable acreage has been lost to development. We missed a historic opportunity.

Much of the overcrowding at places such as Perry Hall High School is caused by development. But when four elementary schools in Towson opened to severe overcrowding in 2007, development was a limited factor. Many schools in older neighborhoods are overcrowded because younger families are moving in and because the state has required all-day kindergarten.

All these problems are occurring in a county that has unique circumstances. It has the second-oldest school stock in Maryland. At least half the schools are not air conditioned. Renovating schools is expensive, and it is even costlier to build new facilities in Baltimore County, which does not charge impact fees to developers.

There must be a systemic restructuring of the way Baltimore County plans its schools. We offer the following recommendations to guide this effort.

First, bigger is not necessarily better. When an addition is built, it crowds more students into the interior of a building. Additionally, while many students thrive at large schools, research suggests that students from small high schools have significantly higher writing, reading and math scores. Over the past decade, the county nearly doubled the size of Woodlawn High School, expanded Parkville High School by 43 percent, and increased Kenwood High School by 27 percent - all through additions.

Second, instead of dispersing its limited funding on additions throughout the county, there must be a focused effort to build a new high school in the northeast. Since 2003, when the Board of Education first adopted this recommendation, high school enrollment has jumped in the county's northern corridor. On the east side, the coming military realignment may bring thousands of new families along the Interstate 95 corridor.

It makes sense to at least protect acreage from new development, and that leads to our third recommendation: Consider shrinking the footprint for new schools. Baltimore County has an excellent recreational program based largely at its schools. That is why there is great interest in acquiring land for high schools, for instance, that encompasses 60 or more acres. We urge the county to set a more realistic target.

Fourth, the County Council must reconsider how it finances schools. Baltimore County is rare among Maryland's suburban jurisdictions in not charging impact or excise fees for new development. There is plenty of land waiting to be developed where the county could still impose special financing districts. None of the Maryland counties that have impact fees, including Montgomery and Carroll, experienced a drop-off in economic growth after it imposed these fees.

Finally, the county executive's office should treat the Board of Education members and staff with the respect they deserve as education professionals and advocates. Decisions should flow from our school officials, and the entire process should be open and transparent. Unfortunately, the Loch Raven High School addition was rushed forward by the county executive's office. The feasibility study was only made public thanks to a Public Information Act request.

Mr. Smith often says that Baltimore County is undergoing an economic renaissance. What the county needs now is an educational renaissance where our students and communities benefit from enlightened ideas about how schools can be built in the modern age.


David Marks is the former president of the Northeast Area Education Advisory Council. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell is vice president of the Chatterleigh Association

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