Two Democrats running for Baltimore County Executive are promising to build three new high schools, Dulaney, Lansdowne and Towson. But that promise would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s not clear where they would find the money.
It’s turned into a political mess. Lansdowne, considered the high school in the worst shape in the county, was going to get a $60 million renovation. Then County Executive Kevin Kamenetz agreed to a brand new Dulaney, after first saying that would take years. At a recent school board meeting, Vice Chairman Nick Stewart, who represents Lansdowne, sharply criticized Kamenetz.
“When he said there was no new money for new schools, he misled us,” Stewart said.
Kamenetz said Dulaney, rather than Lansdowne, needs a new high school because of crowding.
The board delayed until May 8 a vote on green lighting the Lansdowne renovation and is considering whether to ask the next county executive for a new school.
Two of the Democrats running for county executive, State Senator Jim Brochin and former Delegate Johnny Olszewski, are promising if elected to build a new high school for Lansdowne as well as for Dulaney and Towson.
But we are not talking chump change. Pete Dixit, the executive director for facilities management for the Baltimore County Public Schools, said a new high school can cost between $125 and $150 million. The state would pay for some of it, but the county’s share for three new high schools would be between $225 and $315 million.
At a recent candidate’s forum, Olszewski promised to spend $2 billion over the next ten years on schools, including building the three new 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.
To do it, Olszewski is counting on getting help from the state legislature, much like the $1 billion school building program for Baltimore City that passed the General Assembly in 2013. But there are no guarantees that can happen.
Both Olszewski and Brochin said they would make budget cuts to find money for the schools but offered few details.
Brochin said he also would tap the county’s surplus. But do that too much and you risk losing the county’s AAA bond rating. Olszewski said that’s fiscally irresponsible. Brochin promised he would not put the bond rating at risk. But county officials say they need to keep at least 10 percent in reserve to preserve the AAA, and that’s about what they have now.
And Brochin said he would stop what he calls corporate welfare.
“And we shouldn’t be using money for Towson, money for Dulaney, and money for Lansdowne when we can build new schools to be bailing out developers,” Brochin said.
Brochin pointed to the $43 million the county gave the developers of Towson Row. Brochin said he would get rid of virtually all the tax credits the county offers developers.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who is also running for county executive and voted for Towson Row, dismissed Brochin’s plan.
“And the money that went to the developers couldn’t have been used for schools,” Almond said. “This is not a question of them or us. It’s a question of all of us together trying to figure out how we are going to do this.”
Almond is making no promises about high schools, saying the next administration needs to have a comprehensive plan for schools county wide.
Kamenetz put into his budget this year $30 million for planning money for two new high schools, not three, and it’s up to the school board to decide which ones.
Dixit warned the school board that if it decides to go for a new Lansdowne, the state money earmarked for the renovation likely would vanish.
“So that $24 million more than likely is going to go to some other project in the state,” Dixit said.
So the dilemma facing the school board: agree to the Lansdowne renovation or take a gamble that somehow, the next county executive will find the money for a new school.