Panel urges deleting school from budget

County advisers want to cut Tracey's from 5-year building plan

April 25, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | By Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Three times since November, the people of Tracey's Landing patiently sat before the Anne Arundel County school board to hear just how their aging elementary school would be fixed up.

A $70,000 feasibility study and three long meetings were devoted to the fate of Tracey's Elementary School in south county. It wasn't a question of whether there would be money set aside for Tracey's. It was a question of how much.

The school board decided on a modernization project that would cost $12.6 million and be completed in 2004.

But there may be no new Tracey's. A county review board has recommended the project be deleted from the county's five-year capital plan.

"The short answer is we needed the money," said Thomas M. Hennessy, an attorney and chairman of the Planning Advisory Board. "Basically, it got shelved because it was essentially less compelling and less of an immediate [need] than other items they were requesting.

"Somebody has to be cut and Tracey's Landing was cut."

The school board requested more than $72 million for building new schools, renovating old schools and major maintenance work. It was by far the largest request by any county entity. Hennessy's group recommended the board receive $52 million. It estimates there will be about $143 million to spend on capital projects for fiscal year 2002.

County Executive Janet S. Owens will present her budget recommendations to the County Council on May 1. She is expected to follow many of the Planning Advisory Board's recommendations, but she is not bound in any way.

"The county executive is going to continue to support education ... [but] the county executive has to deal with the overall budget as well," said John A. Morris, Owens' spokesman. "They're not saying it's not a valid project. They're trying to weigh numerous competing needs, all valid."

The Tracey's community didn't see this coming. They thought their nearly 40-year-old school was a high priority. They knew money was tight but believed that, if anything, the project would just be put off for a year.

"For the county to come in and completely throw out the Board of Education's recommendation ... does that mean the county's implying the Board of Education doesn't know what they're doing?" asked David B. Stinson, president of the Tracey's Elementary PTA. "If the Board of Education's job is to run the school system, why should the county be second-guessing them?"

Stinson's two children attend the school, which has 340 pupils. Four portable classrooms are being used there, the classrooms are tiny by district standards and there is no air conditioning, Stinson said. The school was to be wired through a grant for speedy Internet access, but it was skipped over because of the impending renovation project, he said.

"Deleting it completely, what else could I be besides very disappointed? Maybe shocked," Stinson said.

Now he has to resume the lobbying he thought was done, this time with the county government.

School board member Michael J. McNelly, who lives near the school in the Anne Arundel area of Dunkirk, said he hadn't seen the advisory board's report but that it's only fair for south county schools to get the same amenities that north county schools have.

"Public school systems are supposed to provide equitable educational opportunities," he said. "That's what that is all about."

The Planning Advisory Board also recommended deleting a new $1 million gymnasium at Crofton Elementary School and pushed planning for a 13th high school off to the fifth year of the five-year plan. That would mean the school wouldn't open until at least 2009.

Hennessy said the 13th high school, which proponents want to see built in the Crofton area, should be postponed because the school board has given no rationale for why the school should be built, where it should be built or how big it should be. There is no justification for a $65 million investment in the next few years, he said.

"Last year, there was not a breath about it," Hennessy said. "This year, they want to start funding it in [fiscal year] '03 and have it done in [fiscal year] '05."

Cynthia Johnston, a parent of two at Crofton Woods Elementary School, said she's relieved the 13th high school remains in the budget at all.

"I'm glad it's still there," she said.

Ralph Luther, who oversees construction for the school district, said Tracey's is a high-priority project. And even if Tracey's is eventually deleted from the five-year plan by Owens and the council, the school board doesn't have to give up, he said.

Marley Middle, for example, has been in and out of the capital budget for 14 years and still hasn't been built.

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