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Enrollment reckoning [Editorial]

Total enrollment in Harford County Public Schools had declined seven straight years until this school year, when it rose by just over 354 students to 37,442 as of Sept. 30, according to figures reviewed last week by the Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board.

The APF Board, as it is known, meets annually each spring and fall to review school enrollment data and to determine if any schools are in danger of becoming overcrowded and if and what measures are needed to bring them within a required ratio of 110 percent enrollment to state rated capacity.

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Even with this year’s relatively modest gain in enrollment — less than .8 percent — there are still more than 6,300 empty seats in Harford’s school buildings. Just one school, Emmorton Elementary at 111 percent, has more students than the APF threshold.

There isn’t a one-to-one ratio between closing a school and cutting expenses, Joseph Licata, the deputy school superintendent, said at last week’s APF meeting. Building maintenance and operations costs might be reduced, but the students still have to be moved elsewhere, along with their teachers, he said.

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Those explanations shouldn’t obscure that there’s still too much unnecessary school capacity in the county, much of it concentrated in areas not growing as fast as some others. Not right now, at least.

Having too many empty seats costs money that could be better spent on hiring more teachers, paying for badly needed technology and retaining the best teachers already on board.

Anyone who drives around the Bel Air area, Fallston, Forest Hill and Emmorton in particular, sees houses and apartment buildings going up in increasing numbers. People are starting to move into Harford County again. While no one can predict population growth with any certainty, it’s more likely to continue moving upward, as will enrollment in the public school system.

School and county officials have had an eight-year grace period to plan and prepare for this inevitability. Let’s hope they haven’t waited too long to get serious about what is reasonably needed to accommodate more students, while also rationally trimming excess capacity in line with those needs.

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