Considering the overcrowding problems that have plagued public schools in Harford County over the years, the knowledge that only one of the system's 52 schools is overcrowded is a positive development, but only if the issue isn't examined too deeply.
Flashing back just a few years to when before Red Pump Elementary opened in the fall of 2011, overcrowding was notorious at neighboring elementary schools. Similarly, there was a substantial overcrowding problem at high and middle schools in the Bel Air area prior to the opening of the Patterson Mill High and Middle School complex.
Further easing the crowding situation in Harford County Public Schools, however, is that even as Red Pump and Patterson Mill were coming online, enrollment trends in the county were on the downswing. Enrollment has continued to inch down, even as there had been predictions there would be a population increase accompanied by an enrollment increase as a result of staffing increases at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The APG staffing increases have been largely implemented, but the county's population has remained stable and public school enrollment has continued to decline.
While there is reason to believe that as economic conditions improve, there will be population increases resulting in more students, such a change has yet to materialize. Similarly, there's been some sentiment among county planners that the private sector growth associated with changes at APG has been held back as a result of federal budget fights and related automatic cuts.
Public school enrollment may start to increase again, but there's no saying for sure when, or even if, that will happen.
The reality is the situation on the ground in Harford County Public Schools is the system has enough extra capacity among all of its schools to accommodate more than 6,200 more than are enrolled this year. That figure represents enough students to fill a high school, a middle school and three large elementary schools.
Does that mean Harford County should start looking at closing schools? Not yet. If a federal budget deal is struck and military contractors feel more comfortable about their finances, there could be more growth resulting from the changes that already have occurred at APG. Furthermore, it appears the housing market, nationally and locally, could be poised for a modest recovery, or better, which could bring about increased population, and increased enrollment.
What the numbers do mean, however, is there is no excuse for any public school in Harford County to be overcrowded. The school system has the excess capacity to make changes to deal with enrollment issues using gradual enrollment shifts. It always has been the case that enrollment shifts from one school to another have been greeted with consternation in the affected communities.
Gradual shifts, however, can go a long way toward easing concerns. For example, when part of the Fallston High School enrollment area was shifted to Bel Air High School, the change was made over a span of four years to allow students who had started at Fallston to complete high school there. It may not be possible to phase such shifts in over an elementary school career of five years plus kindergarten, but the Fallston-Bel Air compromise certainly shows a four-year transition period is realistic.
Given that the overall enrollment in the school system is at 86 percent of capacity, gradual enrollment shifts should be considered at every school operating at more than 90 percent of capacity so best use can be made of the extra space that's available countywide, and to prevent overcrowding crunches in the future.