Responding to community concerns about children's health and safety, the Howard County Board of Education voted unanimously last night not to build an elementary school near the former New Cut landfill in Ellicott City.
Board members said that it would not be "prudent" to build a school there, "given the adverse public perception" voiced over the last several months after the board first approved the site as a potential location.
The 30-acre site is owned partly by the county and partly by Bruce T. Taylor, who donated a portion of his property for a school this spring. The landfill has been closed since 1980.
Although several engineers hired by the school system deemed the site suitable for an elementary school, administrators recommended in a report that the board abandon consideration of the location because "any school constructed on the site is likely to be a source of controversy and concern for many years to come."
Bill Brown, director of school planning and construction, said that if the board decided to open a school near the landfill, it would be criticized "anytime a child had some kind of cold...virus or rash, a headache, or if some mysterious odor is detected."
Brown said it would be "an administrative nightmare to try to operate a school under those conditions."
The new school - the county's 38th elementary school - is scheduled to open in 2003 to relieve crowding in schools in the northeast county.
Though parents and citizens are concerned about problems caused by crowding in schools, many spoke out in recent months about the more dangerous threats posed by gases, fumes and chemicals that could be present in the soil, groundwater and air around the landfill and school site.
In August, concern was raised a notch after a preliminary study by environmental consultants Hydro-Terra Inc. reported potentially harmful levels of methane gas in some spots at the site.
A final report by the consultant said that a school still could safely be constructed on the landfill site, provided that costly barriers and monitoring devices are installed.
But the board decided against that option.
"Whether the experts tell us that it is safe or not," said board member Stephen C. Bounds, "we can do better than this for our students and our community."
The board's decision will not delay the opening of the school, said Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. Staff members are in the process of identifying another site, he said, but he did not say where.
"We'll be bringing another recommendation concerning another site to the board by the first of the year," he said. "We still have time to plan and construct the building after we select the site and get it approved by the board."
Cousin said that any new site could possibly have limitations including size, location, topography and access.
Despite the new concerns other sites could present, Sandra H. French, board chairman, said she was relieved by the decision not to build near the landfill.
"There's always the nagging feeling of `what if,'" she said. "And you just don't know that."
"I think they did the right thing," said Patrick Massari, whose daughter is a third-grader at Worthington Elementary School, which is on the other side of the New Cut landfill. "I'm proud of the school board."
Massari is a member of the newly formed Parents for Safe Schools, which banded together about 100 citizens from the northeast area against the landfill site.