Renovate or replace Fort Smallwood Elementary? Meeting tomorrow will air questions

July 23, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The politically charged questions surrounding whether to renovate or replace the county's most crowded elementary school will be aired tomorrow in a hastily arranged meeting among politicians, school officials and residents.

The meeting over the future of Fort Smallwood Elementary School has been scheduled at 7 p.m. in the Eastern District police station, 3700 Mountain Road.

Given the tenor of the debate, which has generated more heat than light, "I'm glad it's at the police station," joked Carol Kemp, president of the Fort Smallwood Elementary School PTA, who arranged the meeting.

School officials had planned to renovate and expand the 19-year-old school, which operated last year with nearly 160 more students than it was built to hold. But the project was delayed several years, angering parents.

Last winter, County Executive John G. Gary and County Councilman Thomas Redmond Sr. have proposed building a new school on another site, angering board members who have been at odds with the executive on a number of issues in the past two years.

Critics have accused Redmond, who represents the area, of promoting a new school to pander to developers with a site less convenient to the existing community and more convenient to builders' favored sites for expensive homes by a county golf course.

The school board delayed a vote on the project two weeks ago after board member Thomas E. Florestano complained that so much information was conflicting, unclear or nonexistent that he couldn't make a decision. He suggested the forum, telling Kemp he needed to hear it all at one time and in one place.

"I just was rising to Dr. Florestano's challenge to get a meeting together so that maybe on Aug. 7 they [board members] will have all the information they need," she said.

Board President Joseph H. Foster said he wants to know why Gary is willing to spend at least $11.7 million to build a new school, $4.3 million more than the cost of renovation, but won't spend on other school system needs. And he wonders whether abandoning the renovation would jeopardize a state contribution to the project.

Gary and Redmond have been pitching a combination new school and park on 54 acres at Fort Smallwood and Fairview Beach roads they want the county to buy from Honolulu Ltd. Partnership.

The county Department of Recreation and Parks expects to have appraisals for the land in September, said Jack Keene, chief planner for the department. Depending on how easily the owner and county agree on a price, a deal could be struck this year.

Redmond has argued that the existing Fort Smallwood site is too small and unsuited to expansion, that storm water runs off onto nearby properties, that the roads cannot support the traffic generated by a larger school, and said that the school system could upgrade the building later to accommodate expected growth in the area.

Ralph Luther, chief of school facilities management, disagreed. The site is large enough to accommodate the expansion, he said. In addition, the county granted the school system a storm water easement that allows the run-off when Fort Smallwood was built, and the houses in question came later.

Kemp said the PTA would not consider supporting a new school unless members know where it would be.

Rodell E. Phaire Sr., director of school planning and construction, said that without studying the site, he doesn't know if it's appropriate for a school.

The County Council gave the school system $422,300 in its current budget to study whether to renovate or replace the school, but that work would have to be done quickly to allow school officials to prepare capital budget requests in time to meet state and local deadlines for next year.

Further complicating the situation is the board's planned sequence of school construction projects that would allow more than 100 students who attend Jacobsville Elementary to move to Fort Smallwood in 1999 to relieve crowding there.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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