Candidates for Baltimore County executive say they support a new Lansdowne High School

The two candidates for Baltimore County executive — Republican Al Redmer Jr. and Democrat John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. — said in interviews this week they would support the construction of a new Lansdowne High School.

But they stopped short of saying whether a particular school, be it Lansdowne, Towson or Dulaney high school — all of which have been targeted by communities for replacements — should be the first project pursued.

“We need to do multiple schools at the same time,” Redmer said, adding that the county should “at least explore alternative and creative options,” including privatizing construction.

Redmer, who is currently the Maryland insurance commissioner, pointed to his close relationship with Gov. Larry Hogan and the state government, and said he would work to leverage those connections to secure funding for Baltimore County.

Olszewski said he did not want to “pit one community’s needs against another,” but said Towson, Dulaney and Lansdowne are all “worthy” projects.

“The needs at Lansdowne, for facility purposes, justify investing the money in a long-term solution, in a new school, [and] the overcrowding needs across Baltimore County justify new schools and additions across the county,” Olszewski said.

His plan to pay for multiple projects would include asking for more resources from the state and taking advantage of any potential “economies of scale” and other efficiencies that could be achieved from tackling more than one school project simultaneously, he said.

“I’d like to move on at least planning [replacements and additions] immediately; I don’t have the exact timeline, but we need to move,” he said.

While the support from Baltimore County’s next executive would be critical in starting a new construction project, it is far from the only factor. And, when it comes to support for a replacement building for Lansdowne High School in the near future, there are more unknowns than knowns.

The known factors include the poor physical state of the current building and the local political support a new Lansdowne High has received.

The unknown factors range from the results of an ongoing capacity study, being conducted for the school system by Sage Policy Group, the makeup of the incoming county board of education and county government, and how county officials will balance the needs of all its communities — and how those needs will be funded.

In May, The Board of Education of Baltimore County voted against awarding a $40 million contract for renovation work at Lansdowne High School, with the idea that such a vote would signal the board’s support of a replacement school.

But the vote did not put the funding from the county in a lockbox for a future school Instead, it restarted the process for securing funding.

The board’s latest state capital budget request, for fiscal year 2020, lists planning approval for replacement schools at Dulaney High, Towson High and Lansdowne High as priorities number 28, 29 and 30, out of a total of 42 listed projects, respectively.

The order of items on the capital budget request list does not necessarily indicate what the board thinks are the most important projects, and is effectively a reflection of the order that items were added to the list, board co-chair Nicholas Stewart said.

Stewart, who is retiring from the board, said he would support tacking some sort of note onto the list that indicates to the next board members that they should consider a new school for Lansdowne a priority.

“Lansdowne [High] is the worst facility that we have in the county, and it is absolutely calling out for a long-term solution,” said Stewart, who represents Lansdowne, Arbutus and Catonsville on the board.

Lansdowne High School received 1.74 points out of 5 possible points in a countywide school facilities assessment in 2014. The study found water damage, poor circulation, accessibility issues and “significant structural settlement” at Lansdowne.

Stewart has said before he supports the construction of a new Lansdowne High School — either as a “first” project or at the same time as other new high schools.

“[We are] not waffling or milquestoast on this issue,” he said. “We need a new school.”

At the school board’s Aug. 21 work session, some members discussed shifting the priorities or leaving some sort of indication to the members of the new board , most of whom will be elected in November, that current members believe replacing Lansdowne, Towson and Dulaney high schools should be high priorities.

The county school board, however, does not act unilaterally in the process of constructing a new school.

Who’s involved

If the board votes to reorder the capital budget request list or decides to leave a note indicating what current board members consider a priority, that’s no guarantee that a replacement Lansdowne High School (or replacements at Towson or Dulaney) would proceed.

The fiscal 2019 state capital budget request, which listed the renovation at Lansdowne High, indicated that nearly $25 million toward the project would have come from the state of Maryland, with Baltimore County picking up the rest of the tab.

How much money Baltimore County would have to allocate depends on how much money the state puts toward the project. The cost of a new high school can run more than $100 million.

County Councilman Tom Quirk, whose district includes Lansdowne High School, said it may be difficult for the county to afford more than one new high school at the same time, unless the county raised taxes or cut spending elsewhere.

“Bottom line is, [if] we want these type things, we have to pay for them,” said Quirk, a Democrat.

A February report from the County Council’s Spending Affordability Committee said the same: Baltimore County cannot address many spending needs, like school construction and maintenance, without hurting its credit rating, increasing revenues or cutting spending in other areas.

Stewart said the state and Baltimore County both have great need when it comes to school infrastructure, but he believes the county has shown it’s willing to spend money at Lansdowne.

“We [the board] are not the locomotive of this train; we are not necessarily the ones that are way out front saying this is exactly what you need to do,” Stewart said. “It’s far more collaborative than that.”

Political reality

Quirk and Stewart both said the next county executive and the next County Council, in addition to the board of education, would play a large part in determining which school construction projects get funded.

Quirk, who’s running for re-election against Republican Albert Nalley in the general election, said he would like to see a new school at Lansdowne prioritized over a new school at Dulaney.

“There’s definitely a fiscal reality to it. Building new high schools is incredibly expensive,” Quirk said. “I think only one is realistic. Maybe we get two over the next four or five years, but that’s without any type of tax increase or significant spending cuts elsewhere.”

Another unknown is what the results of the ongoing capacity study of Baltimore County high schools will conclude or recommend.

The study’s goal is to provide options and strategies for avoiding overcrowding, school officials said.

A round of public input and information meetings was completed in July, and the school system has made comments it received available for review.

A second round of input sessions and surveys is scheduled for September at New Town High School, Eastern Technical High School and Loch Raven High School. Sage Policy Group anticipates submitting results to the board by December.

The submission could include recommendations that the school system pursue redistricting and school construction to avoid crowding problems across county high schools, which could change the calculus that the Board of Education and county government use in prioritizing construction projects.

Current projections from the study say, for example, that without any changes to school buildings or boundary lines, Towson High School will be more than 700 students over capacity within 10 years; Lansdowne would be about 140 students over capacity under that same scenario.

“A school that’s [above] it’s state-rated capacity is also a very challenging learning environment,” Stewart said. “You have to deal with all these things at the same time. We are a big county with a lot of needs.”

cboteler@baltsun.com

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