The fate of a proposed $23 million public school paid for by a private developer in western Anne Arundel County appears at an impasse, frustrating some Laurel-area parents eager to see the new school built.
County Councilman Jamie Benoit and developer Andrew P. Zois disagree about whether it is legal for the council to review the lease agreement between Zois' Severna Park-based Polm Cos. and the Imagine Global Village Academy, which would operate the contract school. Polm has offered to build the school in exchange for zoning approval to construct a 1,000-home development called RiverWood.
Benoit, who represents the area in which the project is proposed, has demanded to see a copy of the lease agreement, arguing that the terms of the lease are essential to the school's success. But Zois, president of Polm, said at a council meeting two weeks ago that his lawyer, Harry Blumenthal, has advised him against showing the council the lease agreement because it would amount to illegal spot-zoning.
"I have absolutely nothing to hide," Zois told the council.
Now, Benoit says, a new legal opinion that he sought recently from county attorneys affirms his view that the council should examine the lease between Polm and Imagine.
"I want to read it," said Benoit, a Democrat, who has acknowledged strong constituent support for the project while voicing concerns about its viability. "I want to see what both the legal and business terms are."
But it's unclear how Polm officials will respond. Zois could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, Benoit would not say how he would vote if Polm continues to refuse access to the lease, he would not vote for the zoning. "We would be at an interesting crossroads," he said.
The proposed RiverWood project and accompanying school are included in the comprehensive zoning bill before the council. At Monday night's meeting, Council members are expected to add amendments to the bill, delaying a vote by several weeks.
Benoit exerts substantial control over the project's fate because it's in his district, and other council members are likely to adhere to "councilman courtesy" and vote how Benoit votes.
Polm first proposed RiverWood in 2004, with little community support. The company resurrected the $300 million plan last year, which includes 320 homes guaranteed to be priced for median incomes, and transportation improvements, including the replacement of a deteriorating bridge.
The company believes the project will add much-needed housing stock. Military base realignment has increased demand for housing in the Laurel area; about 15,000 jobs are expected to be relocated to Anne Arundel because of base relocation, known as BRAC.
Polm also offered to build a K-8 school in an area where many of the schools are severely overcrowded. The county school board has voiced approval for the school, and recently 150 residents signed a petition in support of the project.
"At a time when the county has proposed cutting tens of millions of dollars from the school budget, one would think that the opportunity for a taxpayer free school building would be embraced by the councilmen," said Julie Hummer, a resident who supports the school and said she's "baffled" by Benoit's "lack of support."
Benoit says he's sensitive to community sentiment, but takes his role as a steward of taxpayer dollars seriously.
"As much as emotion is weighing into certain beliefs and comments being made, this decision for me is very unemotional," said Benoit. "It's very much a practical decision and not one that I'm taking lightly. I'm going to be very clear about it. I'm going to make a decision that takes into account the needs of Laurel, and the taxpayers at large.
He added, "When the zoning gets approved — if it gets approved, and that's a big if — the county, like it or not, is obligating itself to build a new school. If Polm and Mr. Zois disappear, we will have a moral obligation to build a school and that concerns me and that should concern everybody."
Under the proposed arrangement, the school would be operated by Imagine Schools, which would lease the space from Polm. The county would pay Imagine to run the school, which would draw students from the area's two most crowded elementary schools — Brock Bridge and Maryland City.
Contract schools are similar to charter schools, which receive public funding. But contract schools can define the area from which they enroll students, ensuring the targeted community is served.
Council Chairman Richard Ladd said he supports the idea of the project, because of the need for housing in the BRAC area. But he, too, thinks it's important to understand the lease agreement and its implications for the county.
"If you get the zoning, and there isn't a pretty tight lease on it, we've just been duped."