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Kamenetz trumps Dance on Towson-area overcrowding [Editorial]

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has shown no shyness in the past about standing behind the school system's construction and renovation plans in the face of community opposition — case in point, his infamous "my job to talk, yours to listen" press conference at the ground breaking for a new elementary school in Mays Chapel last year. Yet on Friday he authored a sweeping re-write of Superintendent Dallas Dance's plans for additions, modernization and new construction involving three elementary schools and a middle school in the greater Towson area, plans that had drawn community opposition for everything from traffic to the destruction of century-old trees. Mr. Dance responded with a statement implying that he viewed the county executive's involvement in the matter as something akin to an unwelcome suggestion that he would take under advisement. But let's call it like it is: Mr. Dance's plan had gotten out of control, and someone needed to pull the plug.

Elementary school overcrowding has been a problem in the north-central corridor of Baltimore County for years, prompting a spate of new construction and renovations to existing schools. But still there are not enough seats. Mr. Dance's plan, which Mr. Kamenetz initially supported, called for the re-opening of Loch Raven Elementary School, which is now a community center; the addition of 189 seats to Cromwell Valley Elementary, which would transition from a magnet school to a neighborhood school; and the closure of Halstead Academy, whose students would be bused to Loch Raven, about two miles away. Halstead would eventually be re-opened as a magnet school.

Issues quickly mounted. Loch Raven Village community leaders opposed the idea of re-opening their neighborhood elementary as, effectively, a commuter school. Loch Raven Elementary, much of which dates to the 1940s, is a protected historic landmark, and the county preservation commission raised questions about aspects of the district's plan. The county planning board got involved in February, in response to community objections, and Comptroller Peter Franchot raised concerns at the state Board of Public Works about the cost-effectiveness of the plan in terms of relieving overcrowding.

But the death knell was a new set of cost estimates for the proposal a few weeks ago. Initially, the Loch Raven renovation was expected to cost $19 million, but that ballooned to $29 million, plus another $3 million to $4 million to build a replacement community center. The Cromwell addition's cost estimate more than tripled, from about $5 million to $19 million. The eventual re-opening of Halstead would have added some more seats, but how many, at what cost and when is unknown. In the meantime, the plan would have netted the county 289 new seats for about $52 million, or nearly $180,000 apiece.

Several years ago, when Towson-area overcrowding first became a problem, advocates suggested the reopening of Towson Elementary School in West Towson, which is now the Bykota Senior Center. It was deemed too expensive at the time, but the ballooning expense of the Loch Raven/Cromwell plan puts that into a whole new context. Mr. Kamenetz announced Friday that he would support the idea of tearing down that school, which is now used as a senior center, and building a new school on the site and a new senior center in the vicinity. He estimates a cost of about $30 million for a 700-seat school, or less than a quarter of the cost per seat of Mr. Dance's plan.

In an email today, Mr. Dance noted that "the county executive has ideas but the Board of Education ultimately makes the call on school construction projects." That may be true, but the county executive is the one who writes the checks. What level of say that should give an executive into how the school system runs is not always a bright line. Mr. Kamenetz declined, for example, to take a public stance in a controversy over Mr. Dance's decision to create uniform high school schedules, but this case falls more squarely in the category of making good use of taxpayers' dollars rather than setting education policy. Mr. Kamenetz's involvement in the Dumbarton controversy appears a bit closer to the line, but his announcement that he would fund interior renovations there, including the addition of air conditioning, but not a controversial (and tree-killing) plan to create a new drop-off loop for parents and buses is more a matter of traffic management than pedagogy.

What's most curious about this episode is Mr. Dance's standoffishness toward this change of plans. There would certainly be no shame in his changing his mind in the face of the new cost estimates, if not the community opposition to his proposals. Instead, we are left to wonder if he is so intent to be seen as not backing down that he is willing to risk what had heretofore been a productive working relationship with the county executive in defense of a plan that wasn't working out anyway. As Mr. Dance pointed out in his email, there are significant additional overcrowding challenges in the northeastern and northwestern portions of the county, which he would like to address through a comprehensive facilities plan. He wrote that he believes in "working with communities to come up with viable solutions," but he won't get far unless he can work with the county executive, too.

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