Community questions school system enrollment projections

Some residents, worried about a plan that calls for the closure of five of Carroll County's public schools and countywide redistricting, have questioned the validity of school system enrollment projections, which indicate a countywide enrollment decline of more than 2,000 students over the next decade.

In the summer of 2012 Carroll County Public Schools hired private firm MGT of America to conduct a "Comprehensive Facility Utilization Study" to "identify, justify and recommend actions for the most effective and efficient use of capital resources while containing expenses," according to the 2013 school system Facility Utilization Study from MGT.


"There is no doubt that something has to be done, but the [MGT report] provided completely different options," said Karen Alexander, a Finksburg resident who is advocating to keep Sandymount Elementary School open. "There are questions about what they're using [to project enrollments]."

Board of Education President Jim Doolan, a former school system director of transportation who had been involved in the redistricting process as a school system employee, said enrollment projections are just that — projections.

"We have to look at the immediate issues that are here and now, and the issues that are there in 10 years — I think that is way too far to look," Doolan said.

Some members of the community have been critical of the accuracy of student enrollment figures, particularly those used in the decision to build Manchester Valley High School, which opened in the 2009-2010 school year, and is currently operating at 58.67 percent of rated capacity. The decision was made to build the school to alleviate overcrowding at North Carroll High School, which now faces closure under a plan to balance capacity with decreased student enrollment.

But school board member Bob Lord said enrollment projections used during the time when the decision was made to build Manchester Valley, indicated that the school system should not build a high school. The Board of Education caved under demands from the community to build the school, which Lord called "a mistake that is now one that is water under the bridge."

"As an elected official, I have to listen to the public... but I have to base my decision on these projections, too," Lord said. "I have faith in the projections; not whole-hearted faith... all projections really are is educated guesses."

The MGT report, which was based on community feedback and data analysis, makes a series of recommendations to address utilization issues. The company used its own set of enrollment projections, as well as a set of enrollment projections generated by the school system, to reach a set of recommendations for improving efficiency in the school system.

Among them, for example, are three options for addressing underutilization at North Carroll High School and Manchester Valley High School, which were operating at 67.2 percent and 68.7 percent of their capacities, respectively, at the time and based upon MGT's methodology.

According to the Report of the Superintendent's Boundary Adjustment Committee, released at the Board of Education's Sept. 9 meeting, utilization is currently 64.71 percent at North Carroll and 58.67 percent at Manchester Valley.

The report proposes three options: close either North Carroll or Manchester Valley given the five-year projected utilization rates of both schools; leave the schools as they are and use the excess space in both schools for specialty programs; or redistrict students to align attendance zones with the zones of feeder middle schools.

The report, however, recommends redistricting students in the North Carroll area.

Recommendations in the report are as follows:

• align the North Carroll High attendance zone with the Shiloh Middle attendance zone;

• align the Manchester Valley High attendance zone with the North Carroll Middle attendance zone into the Winters Mill High/East Middle/William Winchester Elementary/Charles Carroll Elementary zones to increase enrollments at Manchester Valley and decrease enrollments at Winters Mill;


• replace Charles Carroll and William Winchester with a new facility located between the existing schools;

• redistrict students among Eldersburg, Freedom and Piney Ridge elementary schools to reduce the enrollment at Piney Ridge; and

• begin planning for a new East Middle School to be co-located with the proposed Charles Carroll and William Winchester combined school and for the modernization of West Middle School.

A school system plan to address countywide declining student enrollment a plan was presented at the Board of Education's Sept. 9 meeting to close five schools — Charles Carroll, Mount Airy and Sandymount elementary schools, New Windsor Middle School and North Carroll High, in addition to countywide redistricting.

Although the MGT report makes recommendations for improving school system facilities in order to improve instructional programs, school officials say the report can't be directly compared to a recent study from the Boundary Adjustment Committee, which outlines recommendations for school closures and countywide redistricting.

"It's not necessarily apples to apples," said Bill Caine, the school system's facilities planner who is a member of the Boundary Adjustment Committee.

Caine explained that in the MGT report, the company calculated their own utilization percentage by dividing enrollments by the capacity of the buildings, which differs from the CCPS method. Their utilizations were much higher than current utilizations calculated by CCPS due to the difference in calculation and at the point in time, Caine said.

In addition, the company compared both sets of enrollment projections and found CCPS numbers to be slightly high, which means CCPS wasn't projecting enough decline, particularly by the end of the 10-year projection window, CCPS Assistant Superintendent of Administration Jon O'Neal said.

"What has turned out to be the case with a few more years of actual enrollment data under our belts — real known data, and the fact that projections are built on a regression model — what was the 10th year in 2012 is now three years closer, so the accuracy improves because you're building on known data in the meantime," O'Neal said. "It turns out both of us were high even though MGT's projections were a little bit lower than ours in some of the out-years; it turns out that the decline is exceeding everyone's projections."

CCPS projected student enrollments to fall until the 2019-2020 school year and then begin to increase in the 2021-2022 school year to 25,409 students, according to the MGT report.

Current CCPS enrollment projections predict the student population to decline to 23,432 students in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the 2015-2024 Educational Facilities Master Plan.

O'Neal said the enrollment projections are "very solid."


"There is hardly any significant statistically variance in five years in our projections and it's well within a few percentage points at the 10-year window," O'Neal said.

Caine, who is responsible for doing the county's enrollment projections, said he uses the cohort survival methodology, a relatively standard way of doing student enrollment projections, in which he averages the past four years of historical enrollment data. Birth data derived from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are used, Caine said, which includes births of all mothers who reside in Carroll County.

The biggest challenge in determining the projections is figuring out how many kindergartners there will be, Caine said.

"We know how many kids are in the schools because we have enrollment numbers but we don't know next year, for example, how many kindergartners are going to show up because the information I have is birth data but it's five years old," Caine explained.

O'Neal said the Boundary Adjustment Committee report recommending the closure of five schools also anticipates a single year or two when there could be an unanticipated jump in enrollment.

"I don't believe there will be, but if there were some spike, closing five schools will more than accommodate any kind of anomaly in enrollment pattern," O'Neal said.

When the school system experienced overcrowding, there were about 500 additional students added each year, O'Neal said.

"You would have to have sustained years of that kind of unprecedented growth again to get back to the point where closing five schools would be a problem," O'Neal said. "We have a real challenge in front of us right now with the impact that our utilization has on our ability to deliver instructional programs and to fund and operate our school system and meet the needs of our employees ... that is a real problem today that needs an actual solution."