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"Tough Choices" Ahead on How to Relieve Crowding in Baltimore County High Schools

John Lee

There is a political time bomb ticking in Baltimore County, and it has to do with crowded high schools.


A studyprojects that in the next 10 years, there will be 1,700 fewer seats in county high schools than will be needed. County leaders find themselves looking for what one economist says is the least offensive way to deal with the problem.



While holding his infant daughter, Casey Thomasson was studying one of seven scenarios presented at a public meeting in Dundalk on how to fix high school crowding countywide. Thomasson lives in Catonsville.


“One of the reasons that we moved into the house that we moved into is because we wouldn’t have to worry about moving again, hopefully having our children going to quality schools throughout their life,” Thomasson said.


Thomasson quizzed the presenters on where the money was coming from to deal with the crowding issue.


Good question. 


Economist Anirban Basu’s Sage Policy Group conducted the study that lays out what he says are tough choices for the county. 


“These tough choices get pretty nasty politically,” Basu said. “I can tell you right now there is going to be a lot of contentiousness in Baltimore County for years and years to come surrounding high schools and other schools."


According to the study, the county would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the high school crowding problem. There are seven proposals, ranging in cost from $275 million to more than $600 million. The less expensive scenarios aggressively use redistricting to move students from crowded high schools to ones with more room. But that wouldn’t sit well with Richard Reesey. He has children in schools that currently feed into Sparrows Point High. Reesey wants it to stay that way.


“I purchased the house a year ago at a very high value and if they redistrict, the property value probably would drop along with what schools we go to,” Reesey said.


Michelle Gordon’s son just started Kindergarten, and if there is no redistricting, will finish up at Perry Hall High. But, that area of Baltimore County is growing fast and that school is already crowded. Gordon was wondering how the county can even predict future enrollment.


Gordon said, “But then they’re like, ‘we’re still overcrowded because whoops, the new construction just came in.’”


There is one option that would have no redistricting. But that comes at a price: one new high school and seven additions totaling $500 million. Basu, who does the Morning Economic Report on WYPR, said there are capacity issues across the county, adding there is a tradeoff between building and redistricting.


Basu said, “Because if you are not committed to using existing capacity efficiently, if you allow some schools to remain under enrolled, it means you are going to have to build more capacity someplace else.”


The next county executive will grapple with this issue. Democratic candidate Johnny Olszewski is promising to spend $2 billion on school construction but his plan relies heavily on state money. No guarantees there. Same for Republican Al Redmer, who hopes to cash in on his friendship with Governor Hogan, but the governor has to get reelected first. County Councilman Tom Quirk, who chairs the council’s Spending Affordability Committee, said the county has several billion dollars in infrastructure needs, from schools to sewer pipes. Quirk said hard decisions lie ahead.


“Nothing’s for free,” Quirk said. “And everything has a cost associated with it. And I think taxpayers also have a limit to how much they’re willing to have taxes increase or spending cuts.”


Considering the county’s tight budget, Quirk said he doesn’t want county residents to have unrealistic expectations. And there’s this: Basu’s study only considered capacity, not the physical shape of old high schools like Dulaney and Lansdowne. Basu said the study likely will be tweaked to take that issue into consideration.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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