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Olszewski green lights new Dulaney and Towson High Schools

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

It’s been a $300 million political problem that’s taken Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski four years to solve.

Olszewski announced Tuesday he will keep his campaign promise to build a new high school for Dulaney and a “like-new” high school for Towson.

“We’re thrilled that we’re in a position to do this,” Olszewski said in an interview.

Olszewski promised four years ago when running for county executive that he would build new high schools for Towson and Dulaney.

“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 at a candidates forum in 2018.

Four years later, what’s changed, according to Olszewski, is money. There had been concern that if the county paid for two new high schools, it would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. There would not be enough money for other schools in the county to get what they needed.

Now, the county is expecting $65 million additional dollars from the state for school construction. Because of that, Olszewski said he plans to put in his next budget planning and design money for both schools.

Olszewski said, “We’re thrilled that we’re positioned to do this, to raise the bar for all of our kids without compromising any of our projects.”

“It’s taken a lot longer, but I think in the end we’ll have a good outcome,” said Republican County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson.

It still will be years before students walk through the doors of the new schools. There will be studies and designs for both projects.

County school board chair Julie Henn said, “Once that commences, we’ll then start to be able to put a more definitive timeline around that and have some dates and some specifics, and understand what we’re looking at in terms of scope for both projects.”

Both Towson and Dulaney are old buildings. Towson is the most overcrowded high school in the county. Dulaney’s numerous problems include bursting steam pipes and rusty drinking water.

New high schools cost around $150 million, give or take, according to officials.

In a letter to the executive director of the Interagency Commission on School Construction (IAC), Olszewski said he now agrees with the county school board’s request to build a new Dulaney High.

The state pays for a sizable amount of school construction. The IAC administers the state’s school construction program. Olszewski controls the county’s share.

Replacing Towson High is more problematic because part of the building is protected by historic designation.

The school board asked the state to support a new Towson High. In his letter to the IAC, Olszewski said the historic preservation prevents that from happening and the best outcome for Towson is a “like-new” school. He said the school board’s “action to amend their Towson High school submission only delays meeting the needs of that school.” However, Olszewski wrote he will concur with the school board’s request “in order to allow work to proceed.”

School Board chair Henn said she’s confident the historic designation issue will get worked out.

“This isn’t the first time the school system has worked on projects where there have been elements or architectural elements of historical significance,” Henn said.

Baltimore County Democratic Delegate Cathi Forbes, who represents Towson, said Olszewski’s commitment is a major step forward. She said school construction was put off for years by the county. Olszewski and the late Kevin Kamenetz before him had been playing catch up.

“What we’ve shown our kids with these delays is that we don't’ think they deserve better conditions,” Forbes said.

It’s been a long, torturous political road.

Forbes said she’s been pushing for a new Towson High for at least seven years.

School board chair Henn said the board first made replacement schools for Dulaney and Towson a priority in 2017.

The issue got tangled up in the 2018 governor’s race. Then County Executive Kamenetz and Governor Hogan had been dueling for years over school construction in the county. Kamenetz was running for governor that year and promised a new high school for Dulaney. Hogan showed up at Dulaney a few days later and wondered aloud if he had forced Kamenetz’s hand.

That 2018 promise was not kept.

Yara Cheikh, who is the president of Dulaney High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association, said Olszewski’s decision is him keeping his campaign promise.

“That’s important to communities,” Cheikh said. “That’s what establishes trust.”

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