New school buildings proposed to ease overcrowding in southwest Baltimore County

More than 130 people gathered in the Catonsville High School auditorium Monday to hear Baltimore County Public Schools' plans to address crowding in the southwestern portion area of the county.

What they heard reflects the major points from a Sept. 17 proposal by Superintendent Dallas Dance that includes:

• a new 700-seat elementary school at the current site of Westowne Elementary

• a new 700-seat school at the current site of Relay Elementary

• a new 700-seat school at the current site of Catonsville Elementary or at the Bloomsbury Community Center site

• a 200-seat addition to Westchester Elementary

Dance held meetings with parents and Parent Teacher Association members from area schools between Aug. 21 and Sept. 17 to develop the proposal

Michael Sines, chief operating officer for the school system, told the crowd that the project would cost tens of millions of dollars but did not provide an exact future.

"That's the most aggressive approach to capital programming that this area of the county has seen in probably 50 or 60 years," he said.

Sines, along with Terry Squyres, principal at GWWO Architects, presented the results of a four-month study of the project's feasibility in the area during the Oct. 28 meeting that culminated with Dance's proposal.

For the 2012-13 school year, five of the seven elementary schools in the Catonsville area and five of the six elementary schools in the Arbutus and Lansdowne area had enrollments greater than their state-issued capacity.

At the current state-rated capacity, the proposal presented at Monday evening's meeting would add a total of 978 seats to the southwest area. A decision on the current school buildings would be made after construction on the new schools is completed.

The proposal would not only address capacity issues but also fix current infrastructure problems. Catonsville Elementary lacks fire sprinklers and is not compliant with the American Disabilities Act. Additionally, Baltimore Highlands Elementary, Westowne Elementary and other area schools do not have air conditioning.

The plans presented Monday mark July 2014 as the tentative start date for the projects and August 2016 as a tentative completion date.

For parents with students currently in elementary school, the plans provided a welcome option for relief but also concerns about redistricting and possible boundary changes that left some feeling apprehensive rather than elated.

Monica Simonsen has one child in kindergarten at Hillcrest Elementary and a 4-year-old who will begin kindergarten next fall.

She said she had mixed feelings about the proposal.

"They've done a really comprehensive feasibility study," she said, commending BCPS and GWWO.

"It's hard to embrace a project where you're not sure if your kids are going to have to move schools in two years," she said. "It seems like they did their feasibility study and made their recommendation and were saying, 'Isn't it great?'"

A former special education teacher at Catonsville High, Simonsen said her family moved back to Catonsville so they could be a part of the school system she had grown to know and love. The potential for redistricting has her questioning her children's' futures.

"I had a plan," she said "So it feels a little unsettling to not know."

With a second-grader and a kindergartner at Westchester Elementary, Melissa West had a similar reaction.

"I guess in a way I think it's ambitious," she said of the proposal that would add room for nearly 1,000 more elementary school students to area schools. "I think it was civil [the meeting] and I'm happy with how the community is reacting."

Though she also has concerns about redistricting, West said she was inspired by Hillcrest Parent Teacher Association President Jim Kitchel's positive encouragement to all the parents.

At one point during the meeting, Kitchel stood up and instead of asking a question, urged the parents to form a united and active front when it came to redistricting.

To a round of applause that erupted in the auditorium after he spoke, he told parents, "If you think there are not people in northwest and central [Baltimore County] who want this money, you're crazy.

"This is not going to happen because [County Executive] Kevin Kamenetz said it's going to happen, because Dr. Dance said it's going to happen," he said. "It's going to happen, because you stood up."

Nancy Cohen, a parent who has a daughter in third grade at Hillcrest, said that as long as the school system intends to address possible future issues at the middle school and high school levels, she is thrilled with the new proposal.

"They said the kids would be able to finish up where they are, which I think is great," Cohen said of the imminent redistricting process.

"I think it's great," she said. "I think it's probably the best plan out there. I think it's incredible that Baltimore County is willing to give us this money. As a parent, who wouldn't want two new schools, three new schools, built that are state of the art?"

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