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Smith learns a tough lesson

The Baltimore Sun

There's a lot of "disappointment," some of it "extreme," in the Baltimore County executive's office this week. County exec Jim Smith has allowed that he's also "confused" and finds the situation "frustrating."

It's very discreet, even decorous language in the aftermath of a pitched battle that Smith lost - and one that could come back to haunt him in the future when the term-limited county executive makes what everyone expects will be a run for another office.

But then, this has been an odd fight all along.

When was the last time, for example, you saw parents sounding the alarm on overcrowded schools but rejecting Smith's plan to ... expand a school? Or a school board, having received some $16 million for that expansion, turn around and say ... uh, never mind, no thanks? Or the state comptroller coming to town to support parents in their fight against Smith, who is said to be considering a run for ... state comptroller?

As I said, odd, and it's not over yet.

This week, the Baltimore County school board reversed itself on the 400-seat expansion of Loch Raven High School, which it had approved four months ago with Smith's backing. (Or his pressure, as some board members have said.) But as opposition from community members and local legislators mounted, the school board changed its mind, giving a victory to those who feared that expanding Loch Raven would work against their goal of getting an entirely new high school built.

Coming on the heels of a similar victory in May, when the school board voted to build an elementary school in Towson instead of adding to existing schools as Smith initially favored, activists were cheered by their progress.

"It's not easy to stand up to the county executive," said David Marks, a Perry Hall resident who has been pushing for new school construction rather than additions to old ones.

Smith has argued that the current overcrowding in some high schools could have been solved by the expansion of Loch Raven, and that projections of future enrollments do not justify an entirely new high school.

Opponents dispute that, saying projections don't include the influx of new students who will come with BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure plan that is expected to bring thousands of new residents to the state. Additionally, they argue, making high schools bigger goes against the current thinking among some educators that smaller schools are more successful.

In any event, the school board's decision to reject the proposal to expand Loch Raven doesn't end the dispute. With neither the expansion nor a commitment to build a new high school, overcrowding remains - at Loch Raven, Perry Hall, Towson and other schools.

With Smith adamant that a new high school isn't warranted, Marks said parents are basically going to be "running the clock" and looking toward working with whomever comes next - the county executive has only two more years in office because of term limits. "Most immediately," Marks said, "we'll be talking to folks running for county executive."

There's no guarantee that Smith's successor will be someone who favors new construction. But the overcrowding issue has obviously ignited quite a storm. Parents say the county can't continue renovating and expanding aging schools, and needs to commit to building new ones.

The cost of new schools is always cited, and, to be sure, the expense of building new schools is undeniable - although renovating and adding on to old ones are no bargain, either. Advocates say the county needs to address these funding issues and consider things such as impact fees that other counties levy on developers, which would go toward school construction.

With some schools straining at the seams - those "451" signs that advocates have placed in windows refers to the total number of students over capacity at Rodgers Forge, Hampton, Stoneleigh and Riderwood elementary schools - the county is past due on addressing the problem. Good schools - and that means ones that aren't so crowded that students are spilling out into portables - are vital to any area that wants to attract families and job-producing businesses.

Yes, schools are expensive to build, until you consider the cost of not building them.

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