School plan to get second look

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore County school board is expected to reconsider a contentious proposal to build a 400-seat addition at Loch Raven High School at its meeting tonight and might quash the plan, the panel's president said in an interview yesterday.

School board President JoAnn C. Murphy said several factors prompted the board to revisit the issue, including growing community opposition to the proposed $18 million addition and educational research faulting large high schools. The item appears on tonight's agenda as one on which the board might vote.

"One of the options that is going to be open to the board is rescinding" its approval of the proposed expansion, Murphy said.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, who lives near Loch Raven High School and is vice president of the Chatterleigh neighborhood association, said yesterday that the group is "deeply appreciative" that the board might backtrack.

"Their courage and their willingness to reconsider this project is going to permit the investigation of viable alternatives and the time to investigate them well," she said.

Some local legislators and residents, including Taylor-Mitchell, say the county should build a new high school instead, and they have reminded officials that a study five years ago recommended a new school to ease crowding.

County officials are waiting to see what the school board decides, but there might not be an alternative to building an addition, Donald I. Mohler III, a county spokesman, said yesterday. The construction of a high school in the area isn't supported by the school system's enrollment data, he said.

Murphy said last month's state Board of Public Works action to give only conditional approval to the Loch Raven plan also factored into the board's decision to rethink the project.

Last month, the state 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 could hold a hearing on the matter June 26 and make a recommendation on how to proceed.

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, including Towson, Perry Hall and Loch Raven high schools.

Murphy said the state board's action gave board members reason and time to reflect "on what got us to where we are," and she reminded them that the Loch Raven High expansion was not their idea.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. included the addition among construction projects this year. He has supported additions as an economically feasible solution for crowding.

"This board was not the one who said, 'Let's have a 400-seat addition,' " she said. "Ultimately, we have the responsibility for the kids who are going to be in that building for decades."

Murphy said that the board approved the proposed addition in February to avoid rejecting county funds for the project.

"We couldn't say, 'Don't give us the money for this because we'd like it spent here instead,' " she said. "The option was to spend this money on a 400-seat addition or there's no relief. There were no other options for consideration."

Murphy said she couldn't predict whether the board will vote to proceed with the proposal or kill it but that the board thinks the system should spend more time finding land to build schools.

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