Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says the school system should consider shifting the fourth and fifth grades in crowded elementary schools to the county's under-enrolled middle schools
Kamenetz suggested in a letter to the school board president and superintendent Wednesday that they look beyond new construction to expand capacity in the Towson area, where elementary schools, including Stoneleigh and Hampton, use temporary classrooms to accommodate extra students.
In an interview, he said every middle school in the county is under capacity, while some elementary schools are bulging. "Every dollar of taxpayer funds has to be spent wisely. The past methodology of just adding additions is very costly and isn't sustainable in the current environment."
Stoneleigh Elementary parents immediately reacted with dismay at the Kamenetz proposal. "We are very disappointed and kind of shocked," said Juliet Fisher, a parent who represents a group working to get an addition to the school.
If the scenario goes forward, Stoneleigh students would be transferred to Dumbarton Middle School. Dumbarton is now at 78 percent of capacity, but Fisher believes it will soon fill with the population bubble coming from the elementaries. "It is a short-term fix that is not going to address the long problem," she said. Last year, fourth-graders from Rodgers Forge were transferred to Dumbarton for a year,
Overcrowding is a problem around the county seat, even after the opening of West Towson Elementary this fall, which immediately filled to capacity after taking overflow from Rodgers Forge, Riderwood and Stoneleigh. But that didn't fix the problem. Hampton Elementary, where construction on an addition is expected to begin this summer, is 40 percent over capacity.
The most immediate need is at Stoneleigh, which has 130 more students than the school was built to hold and enrollment is projected to rise again next fall. The Planning Board voted last week to recommend the county spend $2 million on architectural drawings for an addition.
Kamenetz recommended school leaders do a comprehensive study before July 1 of the possibility of using the excess space in county middle schools. He asked that parents, teachers, school system personnel and students be involved in the review.
School board President Earnest Hines said the board would refer the issue to Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, but he added that the issue is more complex than just moving some grades from one building to another.
"I applaud the idea of being creative," he said, but he stopped short of expressing a position on the issue. "I can tell you that …each year we looked at ways to alleviate the overcrowding at some schools and underutilization of others."
Hairston did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
While uncommon in Maryland, middle schools with fifth through eighth grades are common across the nation, said April Tibble, a spokeswoman for the National Middle Schools Association. In the best cases, she said, fifth- and sixth-graders can share some common activities because those students are at similar developmental stages.
Harford County moved the fifth grade from a severely crowded Prospect Mill Elementary in Bel Air to South Hampton Middle School in 2007 as a temporary measure until a new school opens this fall.
"It was a temporary measure to alleviate crowding, but it definitely worked," said Teresa D. Kranefeld, Harford schools spokeswoman.
County Councilman David Marks, whose district includes the Towson area, said he respects the county executive's dilemma, but he is urging officials to move forward with the Stoneleigh project.
"It is probably more prudent to at least get the design funding for an addition to Stoneleigh," Marks said. "When push comes to shove, this elementary really needs an addition."
Marks said he feels the demographics will continue to increase in his area of the county and ultimately, schools will have to address capacity issues.
He has also asked school officials to look at vacant archdiocesan schools, such as Towson Catholic High School.
Yara Cheikh, parent of three Hampton Elementary students, said: "My concern is why have we gotten to this point? They make enrollment projections five years out. They projected this would happen. When times were good, why was money not spent on school construction? Isn't that the most basic infrastructure?"