Higher hopes for high school

New officials could push for Balto. County facility

Board of Education appointees

Smith among skeptics questioning need to build

August 30, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The appointment of four new members to the Baltimore County Board of Education has added momentum to a push to build a high school to ease crowding in the Perry Hall and Towson areas, board members and community activists say.

Community groups, armed with a study showing a need for a new school but unable to persuade officials to move forward, have found hope with appointments made this month.

Three of the four new members on the 12-member board - Luis E. Borunda, Frances A.S. Harris and Rodger C. Janssen - say they would like to move quickly on the issue.

"Because of the length of the process, we need to begin to act immediately," Borunda said in a recent interview.

Janssen said, "You might say the logjam is starting to move."

The written announcement of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s appointments included a statement from governor that he expects the new members to bring a "fresh perspective" to the issue of school crowding.

School board member John A. Hayden saw Ehrlich's comment as an encouraging sign, saying he hopes it means the governor will support funding for a new school.

"We can have the folks just appointed by the governor take up the charge, saying, `The governor's given us a mandate and we ought to be pressing on,'" Hayden said.

The fourth new board member, Ramona N. Johnson, said she needs to study the issue more before deciding how to proceed.

After studying enrollment trends for six months, a consultant hired by the school board concluded late last year that a new high school is needed. The board has taken no action on the issue, and some members have said it would be unrealistic, given the school district's other construction needs and severely limited state funding for school construction.

Because the school district does not have funding authority, board members would have to make the case for a new school to County Executive James T. Smith Jr., the County Council and state officials. The project would cost an estimated $75 million, plus the price of 40 to 60 acres.

Smith is not convinced. His spokeswoman, Renee Samuels, points to school district figures showing that three high schools surrounding Perry Hall High - Loch Raven, Parkville and Overlea - are under capacity.

"This is an issue of where people want their kids to go to school," Samuels said. "The people of Perry Hall don't want to send their kids somewhere else."

School district figures show that Perry Hall High is expected to have 2,321 students this year. Its capacity is 2,110.

DeJong & Associates, the consultant hired by the board, concluded that high schools in the northeastern and central part of the county will be 850 seats short by the 2007-2008 school year. Perry Hall's enrollment is expected to peak at 2,450 that year, then decline slightly.

Samuels said the county executive is moving to ease crowding with planned additions at Kenwood High and Eastern Technical High that together would mean an additional 500 seats.

Few, if any, school board members dispute complaints about crowding at Perry Hall High and elsewhere. But the school district is in the midst of building an elementary school and middle school, and renovating aging buildings. In asking county and state officials for money, some board members say, they have to prioritize.

"Is it an important issue? Yes," board member Donald L. Arnold said of Perry Hall High crowding. "Is it more important than others? That's the difficult question."

Community activists are hoping to convince board members that the answer is yes.

"It's like anything else. The squeaky wheel gets the oil," said Walter R. Hayes, chairman of the Northeast Area Educational Advisory Council, which has made construction of a school its top priority.

At the new appointees' first board meeting, Perry Hall resident Patty Miller said her son often goes to the Perry Hall High library at lunchtime because there is no place for him to sit in the cafeteria.

"It's hard to find a seat, and then you've got your cliques that won't let you sit with them," her son, 15-year-old Lee Miller, said in a later interview.

Then there are the hallways.

"I'm frequently late for classes because of the hallways," said Lee, who is entering his sophomore year. "You can't move through them. It's like a standstill. It's like the Beltway at rush hour, bumping up against each other, forcing your way through the crowd."

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