Packed schools lead to outcry

Baltimore County parents say buildings can't wait

`We have to do something'

Budget deficit imperils much-needed assistance

January 19, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Parents across Baltimore County are calling on school and county officials to address crowding, a problem that has become so serious that some children attend gym in school lobbies while others are tutored in storage closets.

Calls for help are occurring at a time when the state is expected to scale back aid for school construction and maintenance projects because of a budget deficit.

This month, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. called on the county's Annapolis delegation to fight the expected loss of $17 million in grants for renovation and maintenance at seven middle schools. Cuts would mean delays to the school system's long-overdue overhaul of aging schools.

And it could mean crowding will grow in a school system where 36 of 151 comprehensive and magnet schools are over capacity.

Parents said the construction work can't wait. Some have gone so far as to enlist the help of a U.S. congressman and to print T-shirts promoting their concerns. They have lined up at school board meetings demanding action, whether it be redistricting, adding a wing or building a school.

Taken together, the demands suggest the school system needs to fix up aging buildings in the county's older communities and add classrooms in new neighborhoods that are rapidly growing.

"We have to do something," said Donald L. Arnold, the school board president. "Redistricting is an option, but it's not going to be a panacea. We are going to have to have a combination of redistricting, new building and additions."

Finding the right combination - and the money - will be difficult.

The county can't count on substantial financial assistance from the state. In addition, families who paid a lot for their houses don't want to be redistricted out of prized schools. And spending in one part of the county creates resentments if not balanced by spending elsewhere.

Already, parents from the central part of the county are grousing that schools on the western side get extra teachers and programs their schools do not.

`Not getting anything'

"We're not getting anything," said Mary Pat Kahle, a Timonium parent whose son attends Pot Spring Elementary School in Timonium, which has an enrollment of 580 pupils - 36 over capacity. "We have no mentors, we have no math specialists, his math class is so crowded," Kahle said, adding that the class has 31 pupils.

Kahle said some school crowding results from a surfeit of extra programs, such as tutoring in reading and speech therapy.

But Stephannie Wilson, PTA president at Featherbed Lane Elementary School in Woodlawn, said school officials have too long ignored the influx of families there.

"The school was built for 400, and someone wasn't watching growth in the area, and it grew more than anticipated," said Wilson, who has asked Rep. Elijah E. Cummings for help obtaining a new wing for the 44-year-old school.

The school has 748 pupils, which is 10 below state-designated capacity - but enough that portable classrooms are required, gym class is held in the lobby and tutoring takes place in closets and corridors.

The school system said it is exploring solutions to Featherbed's problems.

During the 1990s, the county built some schools and added on to others. It also began a major maintenance program to upgrade boilers, pipes and wiring at old schools neglected for years.

`Not going to happen'

But state, county and school officials don't expect Maryland to be able to offer much money for new schools or maintenance because of a projected two-year state shortfall of about $1.8 billion.

"It's not going to happen now, with the budget the way it is," said Donald F. Krempel, the school system's executive director of facilities.

The school system's enrollment projections indicate it will have enough space for students during the next decade with the schools it has.

But parents said the projections have proved unreliable in the past, and recent constriuction won't provide enough classrooms for Woodlawn and other growing areas of the county. While county officials say growth shouldn't be blamed for school crowding because it was planned for, parents frequently point to development as a major reason for the space crunch.

Development

"We've developed this county like there's no tomorrow," said Maggie Kennedy, who oversees the "area advisory councils" of parents who counsel the school board on issues in the various parts of the county.

Kennedy said the county needs to toughen its adequate public facilities law, which would halt development if schools can't handle new students. And she also recommended the county float bonds to pay for new schools.

At Perry Hall High School, in one of the county's designated growth areas, parents want a consultant to explore whether the region needs redistricting or construction of a new high school.

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