During his tour of Dulaney High School this week, Gov. Larry Hogan mused about the motivations of his prospective electoral rival, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who this month reversed course and decided that building a new school there really does make sense after all. “I don’t know whether he saw the light or felt the heat,” Governor Hogan quipped.
That about sums it up, we’d say. Dulaney isn’t any more dilapidated than it was last year, when Mr. Kamenetz decided that a renovation would suffice. Hordes of new high school students haven’t moved to Timonium to change the enrollment projections that, last year, Mr. Kamenetz said did not justify building a new school. What changed?
The official line is that the county executive stayed in dialogue with the extremely vocal parents of Dulaney students, that he examined enrollment projections and concluded that building a larger Dulaney along with a larger Towson High School could relieve projected overcrowding both in the central corridor and the more extensive overcrowding expected in adjacent schools, like Parkville and Perry Hall. The cynical line is that Governor Hogan (and his partner in local school meddling Comptroller Peter Franchot) were fomenting opposition to Mr. Kamenetz over the Dulaney issue, and the county executive greased a squeaky (and, for his gubernatorial ambitions, pivotal) wheel.
Whichever is the case, we don’t disagree with the proposition that Dulaney needs to be replaced. It has outlived its usefulness and, as parents have long argued, spending $40 million on renovations would be throwing good money after bad. But whichever is the case, the operative question remains: Can Baltimore County afford it with its current finances, or is Mr. Kamenetz just setting up his successor for a tax increase he won’t have to take the heat for?
That’s at the center of the opposition expressed by six members of the County Council (including all of Mr. Kamenetz’s fellow Democrats) who signed a letter calling for any decisions about Dulaney to be pushed off until the next executive, council and school board take office. As they point out, the county’s budget is facing increased cost pressures and rising debt service payments — due in no small part to the fact that Mr. Kamenetz has already invested some $1.3 billion in new and renovated schools during the last seven years, a building spree that was both necessary and unprecedented in modern county history. The county measures its debt affordability in two ways: the total outstanding debt as a percentage of the assessable property base, and the amount of annual debt service as a percentage of general fund revenues. The county has been creeping closer to its self-imposed limits on both measures in recent years, and it is expected to reach the first by fiscal 2022.
The issue is not just whether a new Dulaney is affordable under current fiscal realities but the fact that projected overcrowding in the northeast and southeast areas of the county is substantially greater than in the central corridor. Something will need to be done there, too. If it is possible to meet all these needs with the county’s existing resources, Mr. Kamenetz needs to clearly explain to the council and to voters how — and what tradeoffs will be required, whether that means less support for other capital needs or staggering the high school construction in such a way that leaves some students in overcrowded schools for years. If it’s not realistic, we should know.
Even better would be to take the opportunity for a county-wide discussion about whether the long-standing obsession in Towson with maintaining the same tax rates continues to meet the community’s needs. The county is currently moving forward with a $60-million renovation of Lansdowne High School, despite the community’s demands — just as fervent as Dulaney’s — for a new school. The Kamenetz administration has said enrollment trends in that part of the county don’t merit a new school, and indeed, overcrowding is not, in the aggregate, a problem in Southwestern Baltimore County. But the decision to say yes to Dulaney and no to Lansdowne has exacerbated socio-economic resentments in the county, in which parents in one community are prompted to ask whether their children are less deserving of a new school than those somewhere else. As much as Mr. Kamenetz has been able to accomplish on school construction, that tension remains. We have little reason to expect Mr. Kamenetz, in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign in which he hopes to run against a Republican who won office by pounding an anti-tax message four years ago, will be the one to raise the question of whether the county might be able to do more with more. But those running to replace him should.