At Towson High School, the heat and air conditioning must run at the same time…
Towson High School’s building is overcrowded and in need of major repairs — on that nearly everyone can agree.
But as the process to replace the building moves forward, some parents are raising concerns that the new school might be too large, and that the community will not have enough input into the final plan.
Towson High has a state-rated capacity of 1,260 students, while the actual enrollment is about 1,500. It’s projected to have 1,730 students by 2021.
In budget documents, Baltimore County Public Schools has listed the capacity for the new Towson High building as 1,860 students. The school site is just under 28 acres — the smallest high school plot in the county — and with more than 1,800 students, it would have the fifth-largest enrollment.
BCPS declined to respond to the question of where the 1,860 number came from and if it’s an accurate indication of future plans or just a placeholder number. They also declined to answer details about the planning process and what opportunities there would be for public input.
Parents fear a lack of field space will become a larger issue if the enrollment increases substantially. Parking, both for student and for parents attending concerts and other events, is also problematic at the school’s current size. Tickets for the homecoming dance have also been limited due to space considerations.
Complicating matters in terms of utilizing the land is the fact that the Herring Run stream runs through the site, and a new turf field was installed, for about $600,000, just two years ago.
“Because the property is so small, I’m concerned that a new school means cramming more bodies into that space,” said Stoneleigh resident Phoebe Evans Letocha, who has children at Towson High and Dumbarton Middle.
“I’m also concerned about whether a bigger school is really desirable,” she said. “Towson was built as a community high school that students walked to.”
A group of Towson residents formed an organization two years ago called New in ’22 to advocate for a new building for Towson High by 2022. Some of the issues they’ve cited include the fact that the heat and air conditioning must run at the same time to prevent mold; the water coming out of the taps is brown; with any substantial rainfall, the main level floods — with waters rising above the electrical panels.
The group scored a big victory in September when County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said his FY19 budget proposal would include planning money for two new high schools that “would serve the Towson area and the central-northeast area.”
“We need to resolve overcrowding at Towson High, although there are complications due to the school’s designation as a County historic structure,” Kamenetz said in a statement in September. “The location of a second new school to alleviate overcrowding in the central-northeast corridor will be influenced by the pending high school enrollment reassessment currently being conducted by the school system. Nevertheless, it is clear that we need to fund two new schools to resolve overcrowding.”
The assessment that he referenced was approved by the Board of Education earlier this month when it agreed to spend up to $200,000 on a county-wide high school capacity study conducted by Sage Policy Group. Board member Kathleen Causey offered an amendment to the contract that would have expanded the scope to include looking at middle schools, but only three other members — Ann Miller, Julie Henn and Roger Hayden — supported the amendment and it failed.
The enrollment study was initially going to run from February 2018 to May 2019, but the timeline was revised to speed up the process.
In the Request for Proposals that BCPS released when commissioning the county-wide enrollment study, it said the final product should include “options for addressing short-,mid- and long-term capacity needs” at overcrowded high schools and that “relief strategies may include, but are not limited to; internal space compromises, reconfiguration of existing space, program placement, relocatable units, annexation, redistricting and increasing permanent capacity in over capacity high schools through facility expansion, renovation, replacement or development of new facilities.”
That means redistricting could be one of the solutions in the completed study. And some people feel that although it’s a controversial topic, redistricting does need to be considered.
Towson High currently draws from three middle schools: Dumbarton, Loch Raven Academy and Ridgely. Students come to Towson High from north of the beltway and even west of I-83.
Steve Prumo, one of the New in ’22 leaders, said his group initially proposed redistricting to alleviate the overcrowding. But he said Kamenetz told him, “Don’t even talk to me about redistricting; it will never happen.”
“There is just not a politician on the planet who’s going to sign off on it. It’s always been a political process,” Prumo said.
The county executive’s office referred all questions about Towson High to BCPS. Kamenetz is running for governor and is in his last year as county executive.
Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area, said redistricting is always a “touchy subject” and that residents who live east of Towson High are telling him that they are adamantly opposed to being redistricted to Parkville High School.
Parkville is at about 81 percent capacity with 377 open seats. The nearby Loch Raven High School, which sits on 46 acres, has a capacity of 901 but has just 753 students. It is projected to have 937 students by 2026 (Towson is expected to have 1,716).
“Redistricting is almost always part of the process when looking at a new school or an addition to a school,” Marks said. “I think if the boundaries are compact and logical, then the core of Towson will remain at Towson High.”
He said he’d like to see BCPS arrange a public meeting in which community members could ask questions of school officials and have a back-and-forth dialogue.
Lisa Mathias, another Towson parent who has concerns about the potential size of a new building, also wants to see a public discussion. She and Letocha were part of a meeting last week between New in ’22 representatives, Interim Superintendent Verletta White, and several other BCPS staff members.
“I’ve appreciated the time that public officials and the Superintendent and her staff have given us and we look forward to continuing conversations. But we’d like to see the wider community be engaged as well,” Mathias said.
“Many neighborhoods near Towson High are already feeling squeezed by the unchecked expansion of Towson University and multiple developments throughout the core of Towson. We already have too much traffic and congestion and not enough green space and field space,” Mathias said. “It is easy to get excited about the idea of a new high school. But as we all know the devil is in the details. This project must not be based on political expediency. There needs to be a thorough assessment of how we can create a 21st century learning environment in this compact space in Towson.”
Gretchen Maneval, a Towson resident who is running for State Sen. Jim Brochin’s seat, is also a New in ’22 leader. She was at the meeting last week and said that Superintendent White indicated support for an informational meeting between BCPS officials and the community, but so far has not committed to one.
As for redistricting and the ultimate size of Towson High, Maneval said that the “community is growing and we need to accommodate that growth and be fair to everyone who purchased homes here who wants to send their children to our wonderful public schools. That’s why the county executive and the superintendent are investing millions of dollars in these studies — they want to have information and they want the data to inform the decision making that is framed by community input.”
Another piece of the puzzle is what to do with Towson High students during the construction phase. Some of the ideas said to have been discussed include having them bused to the current Dulaney High School (with the assumption that Dulaney would have already had a new school built on its site); renting space from Goucher College and/or Towson University; and keeping them in the current Towson High building while a new building is built elsewhere on the site.
And another wrinkle is that the school, which was built in 1949, is on the county’s list of historic landmarks.
But aside from those concerns, Stoneleigh resident Shannon Carney, who has an 8th grader and a 5th grader at BCPS schools, said she thinks it would be hard to build a large school at the Towson site.
“It’s an unforgiving plot of land with residences around it and a stream. I don’t know that people are thinking that through,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of school could be built there that would meet the needs of 1,800 kids.”
Melissa Baker, a Towson resident with a preschooler and two kids in Baltimore County schools, said Towson is becoming more metropolitan — along the lines of Wheaton or Silver Spring in Montgomery County.
“What do they do in other metropolitan areas? They think outside the box a little bit and make it work. They build up. The layout of the land looks different,” she said. “We have to look at Towson a little bit more that way and recognize the realism of the situation as it is, and how Towson has changed, and get creative.”
Letocha said she got the impression that Superintendent White did want an open and transparent process.
“Whether BCPS will actually achieve that, I don’t know,” she said. “One factor in the success of it is how much parents in the Towson area and in the central-northeast area get engaged in the process and think about what it is they ideally want for their children’s education and what kind of high school experience they want.”