The inevitable finally appears to be happening with the ongoing decline in the number of students attending Harford County Public Schools, leaving both school and county elected officials with many choices to make – ones they will have to make.
This school year started with nine fewer students than last, according to HCPS. Total enrollment stands at 37,442 students and the declines have slowed the past couple of years to the point where we can see the picture changing.
A few more homes will be built this year than last, county officials say, and considering the slump in home building Harford has experienced since really the early 2000s, we're likely to see an acceleration in new housing – think of all those apartments that have come on-line or will be coming on-line in the next 12 to 18 months, for example. Look at some of the single family and townhouse developments being planned. This is the future coming and, we suspect, a lot faster than many of us realize.
While it's true the public school system still has more than 6,000 empty seats in its buildings, which is enough for an entire high school district as we noted in The Aegis Wednesday, some of that overcapacity can be considered "on paper" only, while some is in aging school buildings that are far down on the priority list for rehabilitation. Where the dilemma lies is what happens if home building rapidly accelerates, as it did in the 1980s and early 1990s, leaving some areas with overcrowded schools and others with empty seats? If it happened once, it can happen again. What occurred in the late 1980s mirrored what happened in the late to mid-1960s, which mirrored what happened in the early 1950s. Each succeeding wave left the county short on school facilities in many areas.
What we don't need any more of in Harford County is a rush to build new schools to accommodate population growth in some areas because of fear of redistricting, essentially a subtle and not-so-subtle concern about racial mixing which has long dominated such construction decisions in Harford and many other places. There certainly are many existing school buildings which may have run their course and reached the end of their useful life, such as the two secondary schools in Havre de Grace, and others which are closer to 50 years old than to 40. Those issues must also be addressed.
While projections about such things as economic growth, housing construction and school utilization are about as unscientific as its gets, reasonable people ought to be able to plan wisely and develop a workable – and flexible – plan for managing the future use of our existing school facilities and for building their replacements.
The time for making such plans has arrived. Waiting until there's another school overcrowding crisis will be too late, just as it always has been.