3 school projects OK'd

Board gives the go-ahead for $62 million in renovations and new construction

November 13, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

The county school board has approved projects for three Annapolis schools totaling about $62 million.

Though the board considered less expensive alternatives because of expected county and state budget shortfalls, the board voted overwhelmingly for the recommendations made by Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell to renovate Annapolis Elementary and the current site of Germantown Elementary - which would become the new home of the Phoenix Center - and to construct a new building for Germantown.

The vote came after a debate that touched on issues including the struggles of urban schools and the school system's funding of schools with high minority populations versus schools in wealthier and overwhelmingly white communities in the county.

The president of the county teachers union chastised board members for what he said was favoritism toward schools with majority white populations.

"If the kids happen to be brown or black, or if their last names end in a vowel, we seem to have a problem," Tim Mennutti, the teachers union president told the board.

Board member Eugene Peterson, who voted against the renovation projects, rejected that contention. But he said that expectations among parents for renovation projects are too high, and that people need to realize that the board is constrained by budgetary realities.

"Everybody comes down here and talks about all the things they want," Peterson said. "They want a champagne and caviar dinner on a beer budget. ... That means you want your taxes increased. ... I don't know where this money is going to come from. And I haven't heard one person say, 'Go ahead and raise my taxes.' "

Among the approved construction plans is a $17.2 million renovation of Annapolis Elementary, which was built in 1896 and will be connected by a breezeway to a nearby building on Greene Street that is primarily used as office space. According to the school's principal, the school is about 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic.

School officials had considered the possibility of abandoning the 112-year-old structure and moving the students to Germantown, the least-expensive of the options, which would have cost the school system about $48 million, according to Alex L. Szachnowicz, the chief operating officer for the county schools.

Annapolis Elementary, which is in the city's historic district, is not listed on the state registry of historic places but is considered a "contributing structure" under city ordinance, and would be subject to the rules of the Historic Preservation Commission.

"They can certainly make life interesting and challenging," said Szachnowicz, referring to the commission. "I tell you, I've been in some pretty wild meetings with the historic commission."

But parents, as well as at least one school board member, vowed to rally against a possible closure of the school.

"If we choose to surplus that property, I'm telling you, it will bring people out, and I will be leading them," board member Patricia Nalley said.

Sarah Williamson, the president of the school's PTA, who attended Annapolis Elementary, said it was important to the neighborhood to keep the school open.

She said that many of her neighbors had "opted out" of public education, and that if the school stayed and was renovated, it had the potential to get parents "excited."

Also, Maxwell said, the transfer of Annapolis Elementary students to Germantown would mean at least $150,000 a year in busing costs.

Germantown Elementary would be relocated to a new $27.2 million structure on the same campus, and students from the Phoenix Center, which serves emotionally disturbed students, would be relocated to the current Germantown building, which would undergo $17 million in renovations.

Completion of the three projects is contingent on the County Council, which must allocate funding for all school construction projects.

County Executive John R. Leopold, who has in the past sparred with education officials over funding, and the County Council have signaled that this budget year will be especially tight.

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