Friday, October 31, 2008

Annapolis school construction update

Annapolis area schools made out well in the most recent (FY 2009) school construction budget. The County Council funded feasibility studies for seven schools, three of which are in Annapolis: Annapolis Elementary, Germantown Elementary, and the Phoenix Center, a unique school for students with special needs. (A feasibility study is the first step in the construction process and examines different options for revitalizing, modernizing or replacing a school.)

All three schools are long overdue for a makeover: Originally built in 1896, Annapolis Elementary is one of the county's oldest schools and needs a complete interior renovation. Germantown Elementary is significantly over capacity and holds the dubious distinction of having the most portable classrooms of any of the county's 119 schools. The Phoenix Center is fire damaged, leaky, and poorly configured for instructing its student population.

Superintendent's recommendations: keep each school separate

The three feasibility studies were recently completed, and yesterday Superintendent Kevin Maxwell released his recommendations for Annapolis Elementary, Germantown Elementary and the Phoenix Center.

The overriding goal shared by several parent groups and neighborhood associations, not to mention school administrators and teachers, was to keep each school separate and independent. In that respect, the Superintendent's recommendations hit a home run. Some county officials have expressed interest in merging two or more of the schools. However, Dr. Maxwell has been committed to preserving neighborhood, community-based schools where possible.

Summary of recommendations

[Note: the exhibits are large and make take a few minutes to download.]

  • Germantown (exhibit): Dr. Maxwell is recommending the Replacement option for Germantown to construct a completely new, prototype school at the north end of the athletic field complex, fronting on Windell Avenue. The new school will provide for some additional capacity to accommodate future growth of the student population. This new capacity is strictly for the current school and is not for a merged school. The consultant considered two size options for the new school -- a larger option for a merged school and a smaller option just for Germantown. The Superintendent's recommendation is decidedly for the smaller school (even with the additional capacity) and not for the larger, merged school.

    During construction of the new facility, students will continue to be educated at the current school.

  • Annapolis (exhibit): The Superintendent is recommending a complete revitalization of Annapolis Elementary. This will entail completely renovating the interior of the school while preserving its historic shell. The renovated school will connect to the administration building behind it (located behind Mills Wine and Spirits) via a breezeway. This project will be very cost-intensive but the Superintendent is committed to retaining Annapolis Elementary as a neighborhood school for the downtown community.

    During construction, students will have to be moved out of Annapolis Elementary and will likely be educated in unused classrooms at Annapolis Middle School. (Several years ago students at Mayo Elementary did the same thing while that school was being rebuilt.)

  • Phoenix Center (exhibit): Dr. Maxwell's recommendation for the Phoenix Center is to modernize the current (soon-to-be-former) Germantown building and to move the Phoenix Center into it. (The current Phoenix Center will then be renovated for administrative offices displaced from the administration building downtown.) The new Phoenix Center will have a capacity of 240 students, double the current capacity of 120 students. From a fiscal standpoint this makes good sense because the county pays a much higher per-pupil cost to place special needs students in private placement or send them out of the county; expanding our capacity to educate them locally will reduce operating costs significantly.

    Students will remain at the current Phoenix Center until after the new Germantown school is built and the current (soon-to-be-former) Germantown facility is modernized.
Community concerns

Many details remain to be worked out with all three of these proposals. Some of the questions for Germantown include the potential loss of athletic field space as well as transportation and parking arrangements at the new location. Logistics are a big question if Annapolis Elementary students are to be moved to Annapolis Middle School for the duration of construction. Community fears about moving the Phoenix Center closer to Admiral Heights while also doubling the student population will need to be thoroughly reviewed and addressed.

I have emphasized to Dr. Maxwell and the schools' Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz the importance of doing a rigorous public outreach effort. Mr. Szachnowicz assures me that the school system routinely meets with parents and communities impacted by any new construction and works hard to respond to local questions and concerns. While I am confident that the school system will make every effort to do so, parents and community leaders will be well served to stay on top of the process and make their concerns heard.

County concerns

Certain county officials have concerns of their own about the proposals. As stated earlier, several county officials would prefer to maximize the county's cost-per-pupil by merging Annapolis Elementary with Germantown Elementary instead of embarking on a costly renovation of Annapolis Elementary.

The intangibles of keeping Annapolis Elementary on Green Street are worth the added cost. Over the years downtown has lost many of its institutions which are so important to the fabric of a community. The hospital moved to Jennifer Road, the library moved to West Street, and Rookie's Market, the last local grocer, closed its doors 20 years ago. Not only would the loss of Annapolis Elementary be a huge detriment to downtown, merging it with Germantown would create a mega-elementary school that few, if any, parents would want. Annapolis Elementary is a gem which needs to remain on Green Street.

Next steps

Dr. Maxwell's recommendations represent a victory for local parents wanting to strengthen each of these schools while keeping them separate and distinct. This is good news but the final outcome is by no means assured. The next step is for the Board of Education to vote on the recommendations, followed by the State Interagency Committee on School Construction, followed by the County Executive and then the County Council.

At any one of these stages the project could get derailed. Community support is going to be critical at every step of this process.

The next decision point comes in just a few days when the Board of Education meets to consider the recommendations. The Board meets this coming Wednesday, November 5th at 10 a.m. (bright and early after Election Night.) The Board will receive public comment on Dr. Maxwell's recommendations beginning at 11 a.m. The Board meets at the Carol S. Parham administration building, 2644 Riva Road in Annapolis. For more information contact the Board of Education office at (410) 222-5311 or click here.