Governor visits school at BRAC ground zero

West Meade Elementary already squeezed while officials plan for influx

May 26, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

West Meade Elementary School is in an enrollment crisis, jamming in twice as many students as it was designed to fit.

With six portable classrooms parked outside and a multipurpose room that's used for all PE, music classes and lunch periods, school officials are pressed to be creative with limited space - and that's before an onslaught of students is projected to arrive as part of the planned military expansion.

On his first tour of Fort Meade, Gov. Martin O'Malley expressed confidence yesterday that many of the school and road projects needed to handle an influx around the Army post in western Anne Arundel County and elsewhere will be built by 2011, the deadline when at least 45,000 workers must settle in Maryland.

"Many of the things we need to get done will be done" by 2011, O'Malley said. "How many projects will get done - that will be seen."

While officials in nearby Baltimore and Howard counties say they've either been building schools or have chairs to spare in classrooms, Anne Arundel County officials are worried that they don't have the money to replace or upgrade aging schools at Fort Meade to serve the children of newly arrived military families.

"I look at what we have done, and I can't help but think we are behind," said County Councilman Jamie Benoit, whose district includes Fort Meade.

Anne Arundel County is expected to bear the brunt of the school crunch brought by the base realignment process, known as BRAC. Nearly 4,500 households are expected to land there, translating into approximately 1,700 students, said a state report.

Many children of military families will attend schools on the post, since these middle-class households are more likely to live there than in more upscale neighborhoods elsewhere in the region.

Baltimore County considers itself "uniquely positioned" to handle the influx, said Donald I. Mohler, a county spokesman.

He pointed to Vincent Farm Elementary, which is expected to open in the White Marsh area in time for the 2008-2009 school year, a 400-seat addition under construction at Kenwood High School in Essex, and $2 million budgeted to study and design an addition to Loch Raven High School.

Howard County public schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said that his school system is prepared for any influx that BRAC might cause.

As home to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Harford County is in a more precarious position. Harford is expected to absorb about 60 percent of the new families coming to APG.

Still, Harford officials are planning expansions, and in some cases new buildings, for nearly all the schools closest to the installation.

Anne Arundel schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said his staff has an appropriate plan to accommodate BRAC growth, particularly at the Meade schools.

"Our intentions are there," he said. "If the county executive doesn't fund the programs, then the school district's hands are tied. We don't control purse strings."

At the beginning of the month, County Executive John R. Leopold yanked the school district's request for feasibility studies for West Meade and Pershing Hill elementary schools in his fiscal 2008 budget, but county lawmakers restored it this week after conferring with him. They also set aside $2.5 million for school planning.

While acknowledging the need to improve education to train the work force of the future at Fort Meade, Leopold said he has to balance many spending priorities.

If planning for West Meade proceeds as hoped, the 38,000-square- foot school will be replaced by a 65,501-square-foot building opening in 2011 - the peak year of BRAC growth.

In the meantime, the school holds 336 students, 159 more than its capacity. School officials project that enrollment will climb to 403 within four years.

As O'Malley and his point man on the military expansion, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, were wrapping up their tour of the school, Principal Carole Janesko made one last attempt to convey the need for state help: "I don't know what we're going to do if we don't get going," she told him.

"That's one of the things we're going to wrestle with," O'Malley said.

Sun reporters John-John Williams IV and Gina Davis contributed to this article.

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