Calvert School can't act alone

January 02, 2001|By Sheila Dixon

THE CALVERT SCHOOL, a private primary school in North Baltimore, has announced a plan to substantially expand its facilities and the grades it offers.

That the Calvert School wishes to develop a middle-school program is not a problem. In fact, my goal is not to stop the Calvert School from expanding, but to put in place a fair and open process that balances the interests of schools and neighborhoods. If, at the end of the process, we strike such a balance, the Calvert School should be permitted to proceed. But there are too many stakeholders in the school's neighborhood who have not been heard.

First among those who have had no official voice in Calvert's plan are the 100-plus residents of the 4300 No. Charles St. community. They occupy the apartments the school needs to buy and demolish to carry out its plan. But they only learned of the expansion when they received notices that their leases would not be renewed.

While the school knew of its plan months earlier, those who were most directly affected by this plan were not informed until the Calvert School was near a "done deal." The process I am proposing cannot make the Calvert School a good neighbor, but it will ensure that the citizens of Baltimore, whether renters or homeowners, have a seat at the table.

Following the non-renewal notices to the apartment residents, the entire Tuscany-Canterbury community learned of the expansion, and they comprise the second constituency that must be heard.

The community has legitimate concerns over increased traffic from additional students, teachers, support staff and all that accompanies another building and playing fields. They recognize such added stresses will only compound the neighborhood's worst problem -- the congestion that occurs at the beginning and end of every school day.

The community should have a say in this, and the process the City Council is considering would give the residents a chance to vent those concerns publicly in the future.

An open process would give voice to Baltimore's citizens and their elected representatives. Only after the affected apartment residents and the community learned of the expansion plan did I hear about it. Elected leaders should be at the forefront of the development of our city; we have the responsibility to protect the city's broader interests.

The Calvert School has done a good job of portraying itself as an asset to the city, and I do not disagree. But I am also mindful of its costs to the city. While the school is not assessed property taxes, it benefits from fire and police protection, trash and snow removal and more. This amounts to a subsidy.

If 4300 No. Charles St. is removed from the tax rolls because of the school's acquisition, we are all affected. We will all pay more, and in a city where roughly 40 percent of the land is owned by non-taxpaying entities, I believe elected officials have a duty to mind the tax rolls and manage development.

I have heard from more than 1,000 opponents of Calvert School's expansion -- most of them homeowners in the area -- and they have all made a similar plea: Put a process in place that allows for community input before an institution grows beyond the capacity of the neighborhood or dramatically alters the character of a neighborhood.

A good process should be fair and open and will give proponents and foes alike an opportunity to be heard. Public schools must go through a process, as evidenced by the hearings being held on some possible closures of city public schools. A private school cannot be exempt from public input when the impact of its actions spills beyond its borders.

There is much to be gained from communicating and being a good neighbor, and an open process facilitates these ideals. The city's planning commission provides the most appropriate forum for weighing the concerns of citizens against the plans of developers, and Calvert School will win the planning commission over if it has all its ducks in a row.

But when Calvert School scoffs at participating in such a process, it appears indifferent to its neighbors' concerns.

I would like to see all of our schools and students do well, and I also want our neighborhoods to thrive. There are concerns over Calvert School's expansion specific to that school and that neighborhood. There are also concerns that are specific to schools and Baltimore generally. This process is not being developed to harm Calvert School, but to help Baltimore.

As supporters of Calvert should recognize, citizenship compels acceptance of the larger processes by which our society is governed and decisions are made.

Sheila Dixon is president of the Baltimore City Council.

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