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School system wants the public's help to solve crowding issue

School officials have vowed they would include parents and stakeholders in discussions on finding a way to accommodate the burgeoning elementary school-aged student population in central Baltimore County.

They appear to be keeping their word, demonstrated by a recent meeting during which they proposed an outside-the-box proposal involving in combination Cromwell Valley Elementary, Halstead Academy and the old Loch Raven Elementary building.

"I think the superintendent (Dallas Dance) has been clear that when we do any process that's going to impact communities, the community is going to give input at the beginning, and not in the middle or at the end," Baltimore County Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Mychael Dickerson said Friday.

"I think that's been new for folks, and for some folks, it's been what they would probably call frustrating. For us, it's just the way we do business."

During a meeting held Thursday, Aug. 22, school officials called together a small group of Towson-area parents and updated them on progress made in solving school capacity issues. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz included 700 elementary school seats in the York Road corridor in his FY2014 budget.

Dickerson stressed that ideas discussed at the meeting were only options that the school system was looking for feedback on. However, some ideas have caused ripples across the Towson area.

Cathi Forbes, founder of the advocacy group Towson Families United, attended the meeting and said three scenarios were discussed, two of which were new. It has been proposed that a school be established at the site of the Bykota Senior Center in West Towson. Bykota was formerly an elementary school and the idea was suggested by community members during meetings in the spring.

The second, newer scenario was to put a new school at the site of Loch Raven Elementary, Forbes said. Loch Raven Elementary School closed in 1982.

But a third unique idea involved an addition at one school, a new school at an old site, and a program change at a third.

Under the proposal, 300 seats would be added to Cromwell Valley Elementary, Loch Raven Elementary would be reopened or rebuilt as a community school to serve the population that currently attends Halstead Academy, and Halstead would be transformed into a language-immersion magnet school.

"As someone who's been watching and advocating for long-term planning and different ideas, these were ideas that hadn't been taken seriously or shown by the school system in the past," Forbes said.

School officials "walk this rope where if they say anything, people think that's exactly what they're going to do, (but) they want input," she added.

Dickerson said the process of re-evaluating the school system's capacity issues, its magnet offerings and long-term capital plan all factored into the proposal. He said that BCPS has contracted the consulting group GWWO to draft a 10-year capital plan that both addresses short-term capacity issues and long-term infrastructure needs.

Dickerson also confirmed that all redistricting in the central area would likely be completed in conjunction with the boundary adjustments needed for the 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel that is set to open next year.

"The last thing we want to do is redistrict for Mays Chapel and in two years, come back and say, 'We've got to move the kids again,' " Dickerson said. "It's bad for kids, the superintendent says it all the time, and it's bad for the community. … That's why there's so many moving parts, that's why they've all got to be connected because you don't want to move kids two or three times from kindergarten to fifth grade."

The focus of the Campus Hills community, which feeds into Cromwell Valley Elementary School, is not on capacity issues or redistricting, but rather maintaining the school's technology-focused magnet program.

Tamee Bollanger, president of the Campus Hills Community Association and a Cromwell Valley Elementary parent, said she heard about the proposal from Councilman David Marks.

Bollanger said she sent the information out to the Campus Hills community on Aug. 28 and that reaction was apprehension about possible changes to the school, especially as it affects the magnet program and low student-teacher ratios.

Marks was briefed after the Aug. 22 meeting and said, "My goal is to make these schools as neighborhood-oriented as possible, and the leading recommendation does that by guaranteeing that Campus Hills students can attend Cromwell Valley Elementary, leaving Idlewylde students at Stoneleigh Elementary and reactivating Loch Raven Elementary to serve as an anchor for Loch Raven Village."

Letters were scheduled to be sent home Tuesday, Sept. 3, to parents in the affected communities, and the small group of community members was likely to meet once more before a larger community meeting is called to discuss all of the suggested solutions and proposals.

Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, lauded the school system for its community involvement to this point in the process.

"I'm pleased that the school system is actually talking to the stakeholders, and they're looking for creative solutions to solve the problems," Hartman said. "We could build 10 more schools, but where would we put them and what would they cost? If we can find other ways to solve overcrowding issues … that's a good path to go down."

In an interview last month, Dance said involving stakeholders was always the way they planned to go.

"Usually, a school system will go out to the community with a plan, and you get beaten up over the plan because it's your plan," Dance said. "What we decided to do is involve the community early, get some feedback in terms of how best to solve issues of overcrowding and infrastructure, whatever the issue is, bring that back, and develop your plan based on that feedback."

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