Balto. Co. to boost spending on schools Decision made to avert overcrowding crisis predicted by experts

August 06, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County has decided to boost spending on school construction by millions of dollars to build a new Owings Mills high school and expand several others to head off a predicted crisis in overcrowding.

The sudden decision to focus on adding high school classroom space -- particularly in the northwestern and central sections of the county -- comes at the expense of renovation plans for other schools and means delays for other capital projects.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III blamed poor enrollment projections for keeping the impending crisis from view until recently, and poor cost estimates on school construction projects for the strain on county finances.

While the county budget director, Fred Homan, described the school system's construction division as "dysfunctional," Ruppersberger was quick to praise Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione for working with the administration to address the problems.

Late last night, an angry and frustrated County Council approved all eight bond bills after more than two hours of discussion.

Council members said they were upset that such an unprecedented change in school construction plans was put before the legislative body at virtually the last minute.

"What a fiasco this really looks like. This council is placed between a rock and a hard place," Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, said before the package of legislation was approved.

Last night's meeting was the council's only opportunity to approve borrowing ordinances that will appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

The administration had planned to seek voter approval for borrowing $137.5 million for capital projects over a two-year period beginning next July, including $66 million for schools.

Yesterday, the money for schools was increased by more than a third with a shift to schools of $23 million from other bond %J requests.

Combined with an expected $32 million in state funds, the county would spend about $122 million on school construction projects over the two-year period.

The largest single project will be a new high school in the Owings Mills area, expected to cost $33 million.

The new school and a 600-seat expansion at Franklin High in nearby Reisterstown are designed to head off the worst of the overcrowding foreseen in a recent consultant's report.

If voters approve, work on the Owings Mills project and an addition for Pikesville High could begin in fiscal year 2000, which will begin July 1, 1999. Work on 600-seat additions at Parkville, Dulaney, Franklin and Catonsville highs could start as early as next July.

The Catonsville project -- originally conceived as a $16.5 million renovation -- would be changed to a $4 million renovation, plus a 600-seat addition.

Big loser

The big loser would be Kenwood High, where a $20.7 million renovation had been scheduled to start next year. That job has been eliminated, along with plans for a $22 million renovation of Sparrows Point High in 2002 and additions planned for Patapsco and Chesapeake highs.

In addition, the replacement of Martin Boulevard Elementary will be pushed back two years to await state funds, and a combined new elementary-middle school planned for Owings Mills will become only a primary school, according to Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis and budget director Homan.

The proposal is based on projections showing county high schools with 4,400 more students than seats by the year 2005 if nothing is done -- with Franklin High operating at double its capacity, and Randallstown at 81 percent and Dulaney 65 percent over capacity.

By contrast, the projections show that Kenwood, Patapsco, Chesapeake and Sparrows Point highs will operate below or slightly above capacity.

Patapsco and Kenwood are likely to be 11 percent to 12 percent over capacity by 2005, officials said.

A County Council committee has been studying ways to end school overcrowding -- a problem that has dogged the cash-starved county since 1990, and has caused a controversy over the role played by development, particularly at the elementary school level.

But the findings by the consultant, Tischler and Associates of Bethesda, which updated a 1991 report on school crowding, revealed that the problem is about to move from the elementary to the high school level.


Ruppersberger said it was "inexcusable" that the projection of such problems as Franklin High growing to double its capacity by 2005 had come only recently.

"What really gets me is why these numbers weren't out on the table," he said, adding that thanks to close cooperation from Marchione, things are changing.

"We're going to make hard, bold moves," Ruppersberger said. "Education, to me, is the strongest economic development tool we have."

"We have to add seats," Marchione said, noting that his staff and administration officials have been working on the changes for weeks because of the enrollment projections.

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