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Two Harford schools in moratorium status

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Harford County has imposed moratoriums on development in two elementary school districts, Emmorton and Magnolia, and at least one parent is trying to get her children’s school, Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, added to the list.

“We need to look at something, and we need to stop overcrowding,” Amy Jahnigen, of the Estates at Cedarday community about 6 miles south of the Town of Bel Air, said during Thursday’s Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board meeting.

Jahnigen is the corresponding secretary of the Homestead-Wakefield PTA and head of the PTA’s advocacy committee. The mother of three said she has twin sons in the fourth grade, and her youngest will start kindergarten there next fall.

She is also a candidate for Harford County Council District F. She is one of three Republicans running in this year’s primary, including incumbent Councilman Curtis Beulah and fellow challenger John Michael Finlayson. The winner of the June primary will face Democrat Winifred “Wini” Roche in November.

“I think development’s great, but I think it needs to be smart,” Jahnigen said. “It needs to be planned smart, because if it’s not it’s going to impact families like [mine].”

The APF advisory board, made up of county, school system and community leaders, meets twice a year in the spring and fall to get Harford County Public Schools enrollment figures, get updates on residential permits and the revenue generated by taxes and fees on home sales, and residential development.

The board met last Thursday in a conference room in the Harford County Council headquarters in Bel Air.

The county can impose a moratorium on residential development in a school district if enrollment is at 110 percent of its state-rate capacity, or will hit 110 percent of capacity in three years. The numbers are based on the annual enrollment taken on Sept. 30, several weeks after the start of each school year.

The 2017-18 enrollment figures show Emmorton, which is also in the heavily developed Bel Air area, hit 111 percent of its capacity this year, with 607 students, or 58 over its capacity of 549.

Magnolia Elementary, which is off Trimble Road in Joppa, was at 103 percent of capacity as of Sept. 30. It had 536 students enrolled, or 18 over its capacity of 518, according to figures.

Projections indicate Magnolia will hit 109 percent capacity by 2019 and 112 percent by 2020. It is projected to have 579 students by the 2020-2021 school year.

Board member Joseph Licata, chief of administration for HCPS, said the capacity could be increased — pending state approval — to 570 for Emmorton and 561 for Magnolia.

The school system will submit its annual capacity audits for all of its 54 schools to the state July 1, along with its annual educational facilities master plan, and Emmorton and Magnolia should be among the schools that have their capacities changed if the state approves, Licata said.

“Those [changes] will at least help that situation,” he said of moratoriums in the Emmorton and Magnolia districts.

Total enrollment for the 2017-18 school year, including all elementary, middle and high schools, plus the John Archer School in Bel Air, and Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, stood at 37,769, more than 6,600 students below HCPS’ total capacity of 44,414 pupils.

That is a gain of more than 350 compared to the previous year, when 37,442 students were reported enrolled. Harford County has seen years of enrollment declines in its public schools and a housing market that is experiencing a slow but steady recovery after the national housing market crash that led to the Great Recession a decade ago.

The advisory board chair, County Council President Richard Slutzky called the gain, the largest in more than 15 years, “a pretty unusual sight” when it was reported at the board’s fall meeting last November.

The county has issued 3,877 permits, out of 9,728 residential units — single-family houses, townhouses and apartment/condominium units — planned for Harford’s 33 elementary school districts, according to figures provided Thursday by Planning and Zoning Director Bradley Killian, a board member.

The county has issued about 700 permits per year over the past decade, which Killian called “the new normal” based on 10 years of permit tracking.

Killian said his staff has not found a direct correlation between permit numbers and school enrollment, however.

“It’s largely in-migration and out-migration patterns and demographic changes,” he said.

Killian said permit activity is similar to what was reported last fall.

Funding streams

Harford County uses all revenue from impact fees, plus half of the transfer tax and two thirds of the recordation tax revenue to fund school construction, Treasurer Robert Sandlass, an APF board member, said. Impact fee revenue can only fund projects related to school capacity, he said.

The county has taken in $14.9 million from all three sources in the current fiscal year, as of March 31. County officials estimate $20.4 million total revenue from those sources for the 2018 fiscal year ending June 30, according to figures provided by Sandlass.

The county estimates an increase to $21.7 million in the next fiscal year. County Executive Barry Glassman’s fiscal 2019 budget is in the hands of the County Council, which has the final vote on it.

The projected debt service on school construction next year is $34.2 million, of which $8.1 million is related to school capacity projects funded by the impact fee, according to Sandlass’ figures.

He called the lower impact fee revenue “somewhat of a good thing,” since if more money was coming in, “then you would have an issue of charging too much in impact fees.”

“We’re seeing some recovery in all of these sources,” Sandlass said. “That, to me, is saying the housing market is moving up.”

Slutzky, who has been on the council since 2002 and plans to retire when his term ends this year, recalled when the council approved reducing impact fees following the housing crash and a significant drop in property values.

He said raising the impact fee to reflect an economy that “is now becoming more vital and building up” could be something the next council considers.

All six council district seats, plus the council president, are up for election this year.

“It’s something that we have already demonstrated, that we’re willing to move with the economy,” Slutzky said.

Homestead-Wakefield challenge

Homestead-Wakefield has the second-largest elementary school enrollment in Harford County, after Youth’s Benefit Elementary in Fallston, according to enrollment numbers.

Homestead-Wakefield had 975 students and was at 107 percent capacity as of Sept. 30. Youth’s Benefit, which opened a brand-new school this year that brought all students under one roof, had 999 students and was at 88 percent capacity.

Jahnigen said Homestead-Wakefield was at 111 percent capacity when she checked the enrollment Thursday — she reported 1,003 students.

She is also concerned about aging facilities at the 60-year-old school, such as a kindergarten playground that has rusty swings and pull-up bars and only two slides.

“I love my neighborhood, I love my school, it’s a great community — it’s so involved,” she said.

Jahnigen expressed frustration with “horrendous” traffic in her community and concern over new development, such as the 124-unit Monarch Glen project off of East Wheel Road that could bring in more families with school-age children.

“If you’re going to develop that land it needs to be lower density,” she said.

Jahnigen said officials should review enrollment at least twice a year and account for changes.

Slutzky said the county can only go by the Sept. 30 enrollment, which is reported to the state and affects the amount of state funding that goes to HCPS.

“If it’s 111 [percent] next September, then those areas will go into moratorium,” he said.

Licata said a “point-in-time” number must be chosen, and changing it during the year could “wreak havoc with any developer.”

He told Jahnigen that “nobody is arguing with your numbers or your data,” but there are needs across the board for the schools.

“The question is, how do you get from the need to making it happen, and there’s so many moving parts,” Licata said.

Jahnigen and the board members debated the matter for nearly 45 minutes. Slutzky said the issue would not be resolved in one night, but “we appreciate your passion.”

Licata encouraged her to “make a proposal of some viable solution, there’s not anybody that’s not going to listen to that.”

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