The first Howard County schools closed because of declining student enrollments will become centers for artists and private childhood education under a plan the school board is expected to adopt tomorrow.
The Faulkner Ridge Elementary School in Columbia, the closing of which prompted parents to file a lawsuit against the county, will become a preschool and physical fitness center under a leasing plan the Board of Education is to consider tomorrow. Rockland Elementary, once the county's largest, will become the headquarters of a county-sponsored arts group under the terms of the lease agreement negotiated by Howard's education department.
Last December, after months of controversy, the school board voted to close Faulkner Ridge and Rockland because of sharp declines in pupil enrollment in western Columbia and Howard's Patapsco area, where Rockland is located. Months before the vote, school officials, parents and teachers had started planning various uses for the two vacant schools.
"The groups coming into the two schools will do more than just replace the students and teachers," said Chuck Parvis, a county community services specialist who headed the committees considering potential uses for the buildings.
"Our philosophy is to keep the buildings mantained--don't let them become eyesores--and provide a service to the community at the same time," Parvis said.
Parvis and other officials worked earlier this week to finalize the terms of the two leases, which would set a rental price of $4.10 a square foot and expire in two years. The rents for space at the two schools--the county will own Faulkner Ridge and Rockland for several years--would allow the education department to defray custodial and heating costs at the two buildings, Parvis said.
However, the head of the arts group that hopes to occupy Rockland has complained the rent would be too high for the artisans she hopes to attract.
"If we can't lower the rent, then we would have to charge artists $8.50 per square foot, nearly twice the going rate for artists" in the Washington metropolitan area, said Brenda Bell, president of Howard Arts United, a private, 250-member organization that serves as the county's arts council.
Bell was scheduled to meet earlier this week with Parvis to negotiate lower rents at Rockland.
"Rockland school is a unique opportunity for Howard County," which has never had a large arts center, said Bell, whose group was formed only two years ago.
If Howard Arts United secures a lease for the 20-year-old school, Rockland could become a thriving center for performing arts, as well as low-cost rehearsal and studio space, she said.
"It would not be something we'd bring in the Juilliard String Quartet for," Bell said. Instead, Rockland would be a showcase for small-scale functions, performances by local dancers, actors and painters who for years have had virtually no such stage in Howard County, Bell said.
Faulkner Ridge's new tenants, meanwhile, are expected to be Columbia Interfaith Day Care and Head Start, two local education programs for preschoolers. A third tenant, Fitness Plus, a private exercise and martial arts program, will probably occupy the Faulkner Ridge gym, Parvis said.
"If the school's not going to be an elementary school, then this is probably the best use for the facility," said Marilyn Elprin, the last PTA president at Faulkner Ridge and a member of Parvis' committee. Both she and Parvis said they expect little, if any, increase in traffic through the neighborhood surrounding the elementary school.
Elprin, however, is continuing her legal battle to force the reopening of the school across the street from her home in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village. Last week, she appealed to the state Special Appeals Court to overturn last year's school board decision to close Faulkner Ridge.