School board cancels addition

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore County school board voted unanimously last night to rescind its approval of a proposed 400-seat addition at Loch Raven High School.

The board approved the addition during a meeting in February, after County Executive James T. Smith Jr. included the addition among construction projects for the coming year. Smith has supported additions as an economically feasible solution for crowding.

But last night, board members said that supporting a Loch Raven addition was a mistake.

"We need to stop taking the cheap, quick fix for these buildings and start thinking about what the teachers and what the kids need," said board member Meg O'Hare.

In addition to the Loch Raven project, county officials have budgeted $10 million in coming years for elementary school additions along the York Road corridor.

"The reason I don't support an addition is I believe when we enlarge any school we take a school where learning is happening and turn it into a warehouse," said Rodger C. Janssen. "We're struggling with this throughout the county now."

School board members said that earlier in the year they felt they had no options, so they approved the $18 million addition to Loch Raven in the hopes of alleviating crowding at schools in the county's central and northeast regions, including Towson, Perry Hall and Loch Raven high schools.

Rather than refuse the money, they said, they agreed to the project.

But since then, board members said last night, several factors have prompted them to reconsider their approval.

"I think we have learned our lesson that we can't take the easiest choice," board member Frances A.S. Harris said.

The proposal has been the source of months of community opposition, with residents rallying the support of local legislators against the expansion plan and attending state hearings on construction funding for the county's schools.

In addition, recent research - including a report written by a Towson University professor - that is critical of large high schools also led them to reconsider expansion of Loch Raven.

"We may be coming to this decision late, but if we come to it and seek wisdom, I don't think we're heading in the wrong direction," said board President JoAnn C. Murphy.

Some board members said they regretted not taking the time months ago to explore whether the board had options and instead accepted the county executive's suggestion for a Loch Raven addition.

The board's vice president, H. Edward Parker Jr., said the board needs to allow itself more time to discuss such matters in more depth.

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. When it set final funding levels for construction projects in the coming year, 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.

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

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