Howard County public school officials are calling for a comprehensive redistricting of elementary schools, saying a "cascade of movement" is needed to deal with an unanticipated trend of overcrowded schools in the east but undercrowded schools in the west.
The disparity is due to a variety of factors — including a changing economy, varied housing markets and evolving school system policies — and won't be easy to resolve, officials said.
"You can't just take 300 kids from Elkridge and bus them out to Dayton Oaks," said Ken Roey, the system's director of facilities, planning and management.
Outlined in the system's annual feasibility study issued in June, the redistricting plan, which largely focuses on moving students from southeastern to western elementary schools, is being reviewed by the Attendance Area Committee. It will go before the school board in November and, if approved, would take effect in the 2012-13 school year.
It would be the first comprehensive school redistricting since 2007.
While the study also calls for a new elementary school in Elkridge in 2013 and states that "redistricting should be done as infrequently as possible" to avoid uprooting students, it projects that "tight capital budgets in the future" will continue to make the creation of new schools difficult, and that tapping existing, unused space in western elementary schools is necessary.
"You have to use everything that you have available," Roey said.
The tentative plan, while not a complete fix to the problem, would affect 1,157 elementary students, or about five percent of the 22,816 enrolled at the start of this year, and is part of a larger reorganization of elementary, middle and high school students expected to occur through 2016.
At its core, the plan is also an acknowledgment by school officials that the system's schools, while not overcrowded collectively, are mismatched to regional populations — that more elementary school seats are needed in the east, fewer in the west.
It's a reality that hasn't gone unnoticed, even at schools like Dayton Oaks Elementary, in Dayton, the system's most undercrowded school.
"The general feeling is that they should be able to plan better," said Dayton Oaks PTA President Julie Krein, who noted that classrooms often sit empty in the school. "There are a lot of nice aspects of having the space, but it's not necessarily the best use of our tax money."
A regional shift
The fact that capacity and enrollment growth "do no share the same geography," as the report states, is largely the result of a regional sea change that has surprised school officials over the last five years.
A decade ago, officials were seeing the largest enrollment growth in the west. To absorb that growth, the system opened Reservoir High in 2002, Folly Quarter Middle in 2003 and Dayton Oaks in 2006, while renovating other elementary schools in the west.
As recently as 2005, most of the schools in the western part of the county, especially elementary schools, were either overcrowded or near capacity, officials said. But the growth didn't last.
"At the time when we planned for those schools, the schools in that area were severely overcrowded, and the evidence of the rate of students produced per home suggested we were on the right track to build what we built," said Joel Gallihue, the manager of school planning. "But for some reason, the resulting total number of homes today, which are primarily single-family detached, doesn't produce students as high as when we made the projections."
As student numbers began falling short of expectations in the west, growth in the east began outpacing expectations, a dynamic that has played out in particularly dramatic fashion in the system's two newest elementary schools.
When Dayton Oaks opened in 2006, it was filled to 69.4 percent of its stated capacity. Numbers there immediately started trending down, and today the school is filled to just 56.6 percent of capacity.
When Veterans Elementary in Ellicott City opened in 2007, the last time the system redistricted a large number of elementary students, it was filled to 94.2 percent of capacity. That number has jumped every year since, and today, the school is filled to 124.6 percent of capacity.
Wide geographic disparity
Overall, the average student capacity in the system's eight western elementary schools is 77.6 percent. In the system's five other regions, average elementary student capacity ranges from 95.1 percent in the northern region to 111.8 percent in the northeastern region. Falling in the middle are the southeastern region, at 108.9 percent, and the Columbia East and Columbia West regions, at 105.4 percent and 101.5 percent, respectively.
The school system's three most overcrowded elementary schools are all in the east: Talbott Springs, in Columbia, at 131.2 percent; Waterloo, in Columbia, at 127.1 percent; and Veterans. The system's three most undercrowded schools are all in the west: West Friendship, at 75.0 percent; Triadelphia Ridge, in western Ellicott City, at 73.7 percent; and Dayton Oaks.
At the middle and high school levels, it is not necessarily the case that the west is undercrowded and the east overcrowded. But the trend is widespread enough at the elementary level to have garnered attention from county government.
"It's really a reverse of what was happening," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "We've got to make sure we stay on top of it."
"We absolutely must make use of the school seats available, and that will help us keep the cost down to taxpayers overall," said County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat and former school board member.
She said a new school in the overcrowded Elkridge area, which she represents, is a must — Elkridge Elementary is at 108.7 percent of capacity — but utilizing open space in the west should be a priority.
"We have to be careful not to just build schools without first using up the extra capacity, and that's something the school board has to wrestle with," Watson said. "It's always a challenge to keep up with the shifting trends of where people want to live."
Economy cited as factor
Staying on top of the trend may be easier said than done, as there are a variety of factors at play, ranging from the broadly unpredictable, like the national economy, to the locally nuanced, like regional housing options.
Several officials pointed to the national economy in explaining the unbalanced capacity, saying the recession undercut projected growth on the system's western side.
"Some of those projections didn't come to fruition, and a lot of that, we believe, had to do with the economic slowdown," Roey said. "It's conjecture on our part, but we just weren't seeing families with the number of kids we thought showing up."
Kenny Smallwood, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors, said underprojected elementary numbers could also be a result of the local housing market. Parents moving their families to larger homes in the west are often "move-up buyers," he said, who are further along in their careers and whose children are beyond elementary school age.
The depressed economy has had the opposite effect in the east, producing student yields higher than expected.
Along the Route 1 corridor, more children than expected are coming out of multi-unit residential housing such as apartment complexes, as families downsize by moving in together or sending children to live with their grandparents, officials said. Certain neighborhoods in Columbia are suddenly producing more students than in years past as well, both for the above reasons and because older couples are selling their homes to younger families, including families moving to the area because of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.
"The eastern portion of the county is where all the apartments and affordable housing is," Smallwood said, and that's what many families are looking for today, including BRAC families who have been unable to sell their homes elsewhere in the country.
"We just have a lot of change going on," said Marsha McLaughlin, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.
"Whether that will be a little blip, and when the economy recovers we'll see people going back to regular patterns, we don't know," she said. "It makes it hard to plan when you're not sure if this is going to be a short-term or a long-term trend."
One size doesn't fit all
The county's mismatched capacity issues have also been driven in part by local school policies, officials said.
Before 2002, school capacity was projected for the entire system before being divided among regions and localities, a process that often created accurate overall projections but inaccurate individual school projections, said Gallihue, who has worked for the school system since 2006. The approach wrongly projected numbers in the west many times, he said.
Beginning with 2002, however, projections have been made for individual schools, allowing officials to capture "unique characteristics" of individual neighborhoods, Gallihue said. School board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said the accuracy of the system's projections has greatly improved since the change was made.
But another policy that considers the system rather than the individual school, and has the potential to mismatch space with need, still exists.
That policy is the school board's use of educational specification standards in designing schools, which combine state school requirements with the board's own and save money by using a single, standardized building design regardless of location.
During the last decade, when the school system built a larger number of schools, the policy made sense, Siddiqui said.
But that approach can also lead to problems.
When Veterans and Dayton Oaks were built, the board's standards called for elementary schools to have a capacity of 788 students, an increase from years past, Siddiqui said. But the schools' first-year capacities, of 94.2 and 69.4 percents, respectively, show the same school was built for different populations. That Veterans' population soared while Dayton Oaks' dropped made the disparity even more glaring.
"It might have been worth having some sort of design (at Dayton Oaks) where you could easily add on, … " Gallihue said. "But it's always more expensive to come back to a site and build an addition."
The elementary standard has since been trimmed to a 600-student capacity facility, which is more in line with the system's desire to build community-based schools, Siddiqui said.
"Once you get above a certain size, then you're pulling in kids from farther away, and you lose that sense of a community school," she said.
Community isn't the only factor considered when dealing with mismatched resources, though, and redistricting will remain an option, Siddiqui said.
"Nobody likes to go through it," she said. "But, certainly, it's inevitable."