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Billions In School Construction On The Table In Baltimore County

John Lee
Trailers outside Towson High School. Credit: John Lee

The debate over which Baltimore County schools get replaced or renovated is a $2.5 billion dollar question. That’s how much the county is being told it needs to spend to bring all 175 of the county’s schools up to snuff.

The ongoing political fight over the future of two of the county’s high schools will be front and center.

When Johnny Olszewski was running for county executive, he made a promise. He would build new Towson and Dulaney High Schools.

“We have to stop coming up with excuses as to why we can’t do these big things and do them right now,” Olszewski said during the 2018 campaign.

Both buildings are decades old. Towson is the most overcrowded high school in the county. Dulaney is infamous for its bursting steam pipes and rusty drinking water.

Fast forward to last week. When asked about his Towson and Dulaney promise, Olszewski said, “I remain committed to making sure that every child and every educator has that modern, safe supportive environment.”

Olszewski’s hesitancy to commit now to two new high schools comes down to dollars. A consultant’s report is recommending both Towson and Dulaney be renovated rather than replaced. It lays out its recommendations on how the $2.5 billion in local and state money available over the next 15 years should be spent countywide.

For the county to get full matching funds from the state, both governments must agree on which schools will be built or renovated.

But here’s the thing. The county executive can build whatever school he wants if he’s willing to pay for it without the state’s help, according to George Sarris, executive director of fiscal services for the Baltimore County Public Schools.

“They’re not obligated to abide by the state process if they choose to self-fund the project,” Sarris said.

Former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who died in 2018, did just that, and that helped to create an $81 million budget shortfall.

To avoid that and build more schools the county could always raise taxes. Republican Councilman Wade Kach, who strongly supports both a new Dulaney and a new Towson, isn’t willing to go there.

“As far as raising taxes, no,” Kach said.

Now let’s throw into the mix two new county feasibility studies, obtained by WYPR. These are different than the consultant’s report and deal specifically with Dulaney and Towson. In both cases those studies are recommending massive renovations, rather than new schools. Renovating Towson would cost more than $131 million, a new Towson would cost $10 million more. Renovating Dulaney would cost almost $135 million, a new Dulaney would cost about $22 million more.

Democratic Delegate Cathi Forbes, who represents Towson, said in the past the county has nickeled and dimed school renovation projects.

“It would be unprecedented for them to fund the renovations at what the feasibility study says,” Forbes said.

Both Towson and Dulaney have people in power like Forbes, Councilman Kach and school board member Kathleen Causey in its corner.

“Since 2015, there have been dozens, if not more elected officials and state officials that have all agreed that Dulaney High School and Towson High School should be replaced,” said Causey, who said she was speaking for herself and not for the school board.

Advocates like Yara Cheikh also are pushing for two new schools. Cheikh said there is a reason you are hearing the squeaky wheels asking for Dulaney and Towson to get the grease.

“When you talk about the loudest advocates, they were coming from schools that had the worse conditions,” Cheikh said.

However, one of the goals of the consultant’s report is to take politics out of it so schools across the county are treated equitably.

Olszewski said the idea is to spread that $2.5 billion around.

“This would be the first time all of our schools are air conditioned,” Olszewski said. “This would be the first time the county would get rid of the need for trailers. These are all pretty big deals in and of themselves on any one of these issues. So, I would say that we have delivered on our promise to go big on school infrastructure across Baltimore County.”

But Delegate Forbes said the consultant’s report proposes spending additional money on recently built schools while the county has other schools that are falling down.

“If you look at what’s getting some of that money, there are schools that are brand new,” Forbes said. “There are schools listed that opened last fall.”

The county school board is to begin Tuesday night ranking the school projects it will ask the state to fund. The school board does not have to follow the consultant’s recommendations. Likewise, the state does not have to accept the school board’s list of projects.

Meantime, the county executive will have his own list of proposed school construction projects, which will go to the county council next spring to sign off on the local share of the costs. Those two lists eventually need to be the same for the county to get the maximum amount of state money being offered.

If the state sets aside money for a school renovation, the county may be able to use some of that instead for a new school, according to Sarris with the school system.

“It’s just not as simple because there are so many stages in the process,” said Sarris. “Ultimately politicians are making all of these decisions. That’s just local government.”

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