Bushy Park school feels squeeze for another year

Budget, septic issues delay plans for building's expansion or replacement


October 12, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

When one school crowding problem is solved, another is spawned in Howard County, where the school system's stellar reputation continues to attract new families.

This year, the distinction of being the county's most-crowded elementary school belongs to Bushy Park Elementary, off Route 97 in Glenwood, where the situation has taken on new urgency because plans to expand or replace the building have been deferred for another year under a proposed capital budget.

"They knew we would be one of the top-five overcrowded schools," said Lucinda Peters, president of Bushy Park's PTA. "They kept pushing it back. Bushy always got cut, cut, cut and cut."

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote tonight on Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin's $87.4 million spending plan for fiscal year 2006. Under his long-term capital plan, Bushy Park would be expanded or replaced with a new building by the 2008 school year instead of 2007 because of issues surrounding its difficulties posed by the septic system.

But Bushy Park parents want to see a more immediate solution to a problem that they say has been festering for several years - one that has put their children in six portables and smaller classrooms meant to be project rooms.

"My kindergartner started last year, and under their scenario, the best case is that she's going to see an improved new school during her last year, as a fifth-grader," said Sean Hughes, a parent of two pupils at Bushy Park and chairman of the PTA's growth and planning committee.

"That's just an example of poor planning," he said. "It has to have an impact on the kids' education and the ability of the teachers and administrators to do their best job.

"It's the most crowded," he added. "It has the most portables. There is little relief in sight for years and years."

The school, built in 1976, is designed for 440 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, but preliminary enrollment figures put this school year's population at 669 - putting the school at more than 150 percent capacity.

Relief plans for Bushy Park have been hampered over the years by a lack of funding and political wrangling over how to raise additional revenue for school construction. Then there are factors common to schools in Howard's rural areas: The septic system and soil absorption problems make it more difficult for the school system to enlarge the school.

Last year, the school board commissioned a $1.4 million feasibility study to look at three options for the school:

Renovate and expand.

Replace with a $20 million building with 788 seats.

Replace with an $18 million building with 600 seats.

A new school would be built on land adjacent to the existing building. The results of the study are expected by end of the year or in early January, said Bill Brown, Howard's director of school construction.

The school system will choose an option based largely on approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment to expand a septic system that would accommodate a replacement school or an addition, Brown said.

At the same time, new MDE regulations forced school officials to redesign a septic system that also would accommodate a future addition at nearby Glenwood Middle School, delaying the state agency's review of the school system's application for a septic permit.

MDE's review could take up to 18 months, or longer, particularly because Bushy Park sits along Triadelphia Reservoir, Brown said.

"The standards for septic have been becoming increasingly stringent," Brown said. "MDE has a special effort to protect the groundwater quality around the reservoir."

As a result, Cousin pushed back construction plans for Bushy Park until the 2007 fiscal year capital budget.

In the meantime, the school system is seeking approval from the county Health Department to add two more portable classrooms at Bushy Park. The opening of a western elementary school in Dayton in 2006 is expected to take 200 to 250 pupils from the Bushy Park district, school officials said.

Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, said she understands parents' frustrations and stressed that the school system has been working to find a solution. But the school board is one player in a complex problem that involves the county's growth-management policies, Watson noted.

"Relieving Bushy Park was the No. 1 priority for the school board" last year, Watson said. "We funded the western elementary school and did not fund the northeastern school. That was the first step in solving the problem. We have many short-term and long-term solutions, but they don't happen overnight."

Watson knows firsthand. As a parent, she lobbied the school board several years ago for a new elementary school to relieve crowding in the northeast. Bellows Spring Elementary School in Ellicott City opened last year, six years after parents began their efforts.

"Once we solve the problem in one part of the county, another problem pops up in another part of the county," she said. "It's a result of the growth in Howard County."

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