Russo pulls out of school site plan

Morgan State wants Northwood building

February 07, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo has withdrawn a contentious plan to launch a new high school at a Northwood shopping center site long coveted by Morgan State University.

Russo said school officials were unaware that Morgan State had been negotiating to purchase the partially vacant Hechinger building in the Northwood shopping plaza when she proposed the same location for her first "innovation" high school, to open in September.

"I had no inkling whatsoever about Morgan State, and once we heard we pulled back," Russo said yesterday. "Next time we know to do a better job on due diligence."

Morgan State's plan for the site - to build a hotel and conference center that would house its hospitality management program - was not school officials' only problem. Northeast residents said they were blindsided by the school system's proposal and worried it would adversely affect their neighborhoods.

"No one had been apprised of this. No one sat down with us, engaging the community," said Paula Purviance, co-chairwoman of the Northwood Shopping Center task force and a former president of the Hillen Road Improvement Association.

Purviance said that residents have complained to police about suspected drug dealing, vandalism and loitering around the partially vacant center and that a 500-student high school might make the situation worse. Police officials familiar with Northwood plaza were not available for comment.

Purviance and other area activists said that the community has supported Morgan State's plans for the old Hechinger building - which is owned by Olson Limited Partnership I of Washington - for more than a year. Elected city officials, including Mayor Martin O'Malley and Councilmen Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Robert W. Curran, who represent Northeast districts, have also backed Morgan's expansion plans.

Curran, a longtime resident of Original Northwood, said the school system's primary mistake was failing to talk to the community. He heard about the high school plan from distressed residents.

Harris said, "There was no communication. Whatever you're doing that's going to involve some adjustment to the fabric of a community, you've got to involve that community."

Russo says she still intends to launch an "innovation" high school in the fall, one of six to eight planned to help reduce enrollment at the city's nine neighborhood high schools and give parents and students more choice.

The high school proposed for Northwood was to have a theme of communications and teaching, and draw students in part from nearby Northern High School, which has about 2,000 students.

An alternate location, Russo said, is the Samuel L. Banks Professional Development Center on East Northern Parkway, which is used by the school system.

"From my perspective, when you do small innovation high schools, you end up exploring lots of different sites, some of which are more suitable than others," Russo said.

"You need to have people comfortable," she added. "They need to know that their community will be enhanced by our presence."

School officials have taken the Northwood proposal off the agenda of a 6 p.m. public hearing today at North Avenue headquarters. A plan for another new high school with two academies - finance and travel and tourism - at downtown's Charles Plaza will be discussed.

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