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Board approves new Elkridge site for elementary school

While Elkridge community members are praising the county board of education's decision to build an elementary school farther from a proposed railway facility than originally planned, some are concerned the new school won't do enough to ease overcrowding in area schools.

The board unanimously selected a site along Ducketts Lane, in Elkridge, less than 2 miles from the initial proposed site on Coca-Cola Drive, in Hanover, at its meeting Tuesday, June 21.

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The site was recommended by Ken Roey, executive director of facilities, and Joel Gallihue, manager of school planning.

The site on Coca-Cola Drive had drawn criticism from the public and board members for its proximity to a potential CSX Corp. intermodal facility.

"It's wise (the board) chose a site away from the location," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, whose group is fighting the CSX facility at the Elkridge site. "It shows us they were a little wary, and leery, of the CSX situation.

"I don't think board members had confidence that (the Coca-Cola Drive site) was mitigated enough to put a school there. We're pleased they're moving ahead."

The board found itself in a predicament in March when CSX announced it was considering several sites for a transfer facility, including one in Elkridge about a mile from the proposed elementary school site. People were upset, Johnson said, not only with the site, but that it would be so close to the planned elementary school.

"There was a thought that if the school went in, CSX wouldn't, but history has shown that CSX goes where it has to go," Johnson said. "You have to take it as a vote of confidence in the neighborhood, being backed up by the school system and the board of education, that this facility is just not a good idea."

The 10.1-acre site on Ducketts Lane is large enough to comfortably fit the approved school design, a bus lot, parking lot, ball field and multi-purpose field, Roey said.

The only possible obstacle, he said, was acquiring permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Department of the Environment to fill in wetlands on the site.

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Board member Ellen Flynn Giles noted the site had already been approved by the state's Interagency Committee, which must give the go-ahead for all public school construction.

The board must still acquire the site from its current owners, Ducketts Ridge, LLC. The site was owned by the school system 20 years ago, Roey said.

A public hearing on the matter will be held July 14, with a board decision on purchasing the land Aug. 18. If the board approves the purchase of the site, acquisition would occur "as soon as possible," Roey said, and the elementary school could still open for August 2013.

Relief for overcrowding?

The new school, which has a capacity of 600 students, would alleviate overcrowding at other schools in the area: Bellows Springs and Rockburn elementaries. The Coca-Cola Drive site would have relieved overcrowding at Bellows Springs and Elkridge elementaries, said Gallihue.

Overcrowding is not as acute at Rockburn elementary, according to school system figures, and the lack of help the new site would offer Elkridge Elementary worried Nancy Pfeffer, outgoing president of the school's Parent-Teacher Association.

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"We're looking at 900 students coming in the fall into a building for 700, 775 students," said Pfeffer, a mother of a third- and sixth-grader. "It's not going to alleviate overcrowding. The classes are getting bigger and the teachers are getting frustrated."

Gallihue said capacity at elementary schools in the region could be balanced through changes in the redistricting plan the board is expected to approve in the fall.

Gallihue also noted that the school system's long-range capital plan included a new middle school in the region in 2014 and another new elementary school in 2019.

But school board member Brian Meshkin, while conceding that a new elementary school and redistricting would relieve overcrowding in the future, said relief is needed sooner. He proposed that the board request the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning to evaluate the impact of open enrollment, which allows students in overcrowded schools to attend designated "open" schools outside of their attendance area.

The board unanimously approved the request.

Board member Allen Dyer said that even though the decision to proceed at the Ducketts Lane site might appear to be a surprise, it was something the board had been discussing for some time in closed session.

"The appearance here is that we're pulling a rabbit out of a hat," he said. "That's not the case. I think it was the failure of the board to let the public be more aware of the alternatives."

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