Smith 'confused' by board move

The Baltimore Sun

About $12 million that had been budgeted for the expansion of Loch Raven High School will instead go toward other projects after the school board unanimously voted to rescind its approval of the proposed addition, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday.

He said he is "confused and disappointed" by the board's decision to reject what he called a "perfect" solution to overcrowding and that he is worried that the county might lose nearly $4 million in state funding that had been budgeted for the Loch Raven addition.

"I really worked very hard with the state to come up with the $3.9 million," Smith said in an interview yesterday. "Now, that money is certainly in limbo."

A state education official said yesterday that the county probably will get at least half of the money for use on another school project.

The Loch Raven vote marked the second time in recent months that the board has differed with Smith over using additions to address overcrowded schools. The board decided in May to build a new elementary school in Towson rather than approve additions that Smith had originally favored. In both cases, some board members said they felt pressured to agree to expansion plans backed by Smith.

Smith said the county will use about $12 million set aside for Loch Raven to fund some of the 42 improvement projects totaling $20 million that the school system had said were needed but had not been funded. He said he will ask the school board to prioritize the projects.

County school board President JoAnn C. Murphy said she was pleased that other school projects would be completed with the money.

"It's very nice that the money will be used for projects we've previously said we'd like funds for," she said. "I truly believe that this board, with a capable [school system] staff, can identify where we can spend money the most wisely."

The projects include repaving and expanding parking lots and rebuilding multi-use tennis courts. They range in cost from $50,000 to $850,000.

Smith said the board's Loch Raven decision is puzzling because the board approved the addition at two previous meetings, most recently in February.

Some board members said Tuesday night that supporting a Loch Raven addition had been a mistake.

They said that earlier in the year they felt they had no other options, so they approved the $18 million addition to Loch Raven in hopes of alleviating crowding at schools in the county's central and northeast sections, including Towson, Perry Hall and Loch Raven high schools. Rather than refuse the money, they said, they agreed to the project.

Murphy said the board will continue to monitor enrollment trends as it works toward developing strategic, long-term plans to deal with capacity issues.

But, she said, the board's members had decided an addition at Loch Raven was "ill-advised."

She said the board acted responsibly in rescinding its approval of a proposal that it hadn't generated.

"We're not going to spend more time and more money on something that isn't working," she said.

Smith called the Loch Raven proposal an ideal solution because the enrollment numbers have not justified construction of an additional high school for the central and northeast area of the county. Loch Raven High School, which was built in 1972 for about 975 students, has an enrollment of about 1,085. School system projections show the school's enrollment decreasing slightly in the coming years. Perry Hall and Towson high schools are nearly 400 students over capacity.

"The fact is [school board members] have changed their mind," Smith said in an interview yesterday. "This is a tough year, and now I have $12 million they don't want to use for an addition that can go toward other projects. ... It's like Christmas in June."

In a statement issued by the county executive's office, County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz reacted favorably to Smith's suggestion to reallocate the Loch Raven funds.

"Obviously, the Board of Education makes its own decisions," Kamenetz said. "The result of this action may not help the high school students in the central area, but it will certainly allow the council the opportunity to fund important projects all across the county."

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. When the state board set final funding levels for construction projects in the coming year, it took the unusual step of withholding full approval of the 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.

David Lever, executive director of the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction, said yesterday that his group is "already floating ideas" for using the $3.9 million for other county projects. Nearly $2 million may go to a project, which he declined to specify, that had been underfunded in initial rounds of requests.

"We very much want that money to be used productively in Baltimore County, where there are a large number of needs," he said.

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