As she and her team prepare the 2017 feasibility study to be released in June, Renée Kamen, the school system's planning manager, said last year's study recommended redistricting three sections of the county for the 2018-2019 school year.
Overcrowding in Howard County public schools has school officials contemplating another round of redistricting, while parents worry about the county's growing student population.
According to the school system's 2016 feasibility study, 15 of the county's 76 schools are currently overcapacity, falling outside a board policy to utilize between 90 to 110 percent of a building's capacity. The study shows 8 elementary, four middle and three high schools are overcapacity, while eight elementary, three middle and four high schools are undercapacity.
Renee Kamen, the school system's planning manager, said she and her team are preparing the 2017 feasibility study, to be released in June, using last year's study, which recommended redistricting three sections of the county for the 2018-2019 school year.
According to school system spokesman John White, the last redistricting for Howard schools occurred in 2013 with the opening of Thomas Viaduct Middle School in Hanover. As middle schools in the northeast area became overcrowded, White said the then-new middle school alleviated the growing student numbers.
The Office of School Planning will review the county's most recent data to determine if redistricting is still a suitable option.
"We're the fastest-growing county in terms of student population," Kamen said. "We get about 1,000 students every year from kindergarten through 12th grade."
In the study, foreseeable redistricting at the elementary level would see more students moving to schools in the western part of the county, such as West Friendship, Bushy Park, Clarksville or Dayton Oaks elementaries, due to overcrowded schools in the northern and southern areas, like Manor Woods, Centennial Lane or Longfellow elementaries.
Middle schools, including Dunloggin, Ellicott Mills and Harper's Choice, are overcapacity in the northern part of the county. While elementary schools in western Howard County have more capacity, middle schools in that area, such as Mount View, Folly Quarter and Burleigh Manor, are already within capacity.
Lake Elkhorn Middle School falls below the target utilization, according to last year's study.
"If you have a school that is extremely overcrowded, you look to the surrounding schools to balance the student enrollment," Kamen said. "If one school is over 120 percent utilization and then the adjacent school has only used 85 percent, then that could be a potential use of that school to balance."
The planning committee updates its projections each year, she said, including the county's growth in new housing, resale, apartment turnover and historical yields for particular schools in their report.
At the direction of an advisory group convened for the first time in nearly 14 years, Howard County will consider updating a policy that manages development this year as the fast-growing suburban county outpaces statewide population growth.
The data also shows a little less than half of the anticipated student population will come from new construction between 2016 and 2026. The student population has grown by 44 percent over the past 20 years, with 21 schools built since 1995.
Construction of new schools, including the 2018 opening of Elementary School 42 in Hanover, will ease capacity issues. School construction and renovations can add seats to schools, if necessary, Kamen said. Student population growth is particularly evident along the Route 1 corridor, she said.
Short-term solutions, long-term concerns
Since the redistricting process takes a year before implementation, Kamen said the school system uses portable buildings as a more immediate solution to empty packed hallways. Portables are used after factoring-in regional programs, enrollment, the yearly budget and number of available classroom spaces.
Starting next year, three portables will be added to Manor Woods Elementary, which currently is at over 120 percent capacity, according to the 2016 feasibility study. The surrounding area has shown a higher-than-average yield from resales of homes, Kamen said, which is shown at all grade levels.
"As our population ages out, those houses are coming back on the market, so people with families are now moving into them," she said. "The elementary schools are most influenced by the housing, but we don't see that at the middle and high school levels."
At Manor Woods, parent Wendy Williams-Abrams said the elementary school currently has one portable. Williams-Abrams, also a member of the school's redistricting committee, has a second-grader at Manor Woods, with another child beginning kindergarten there next year.
She also has two children at Burleigh Manor Middle School, she said.
Williams-Abrams said she's worried about the latest study's numbers that show the school's approved capacity as 681 students, not including additional capacity in one portable; according to the school profile for this year, there are 759 students at the school.
"We have kids in a classroom that is not supposed to be a classroom, very large class sizes and teachers who are fighting to be heard by students because a neighboring class is too close," she said. "Concerns range from how is instruction impacted to the environmental effects of having too many children at Manor Woods."
School and county planners said existing controls will ensure overcrowding is tackled as the county chases a vision to make downtown Columbia a true downtown environment. This conclusion rests on a key assumption: downtown Columbia will not produce as many students in the school system as other parts of the county, according to the county's projections. Higher-than average rents and studio and one-bedroom apartments in high-rise apartment buildings will mean less students, according to the
Portables provide temporary relief, she said, but negatively impact quality instruction time as children travel to and from the building. Aggie Wojdon, the school's PTA president, said the portables' location at Manor Woods also becomes an issue because of the preserved forest, septic field and water management pond surrounding the property.
"There really is not adequate fencing around where they plan to put the portables," Wojdon said. "People can come and go and kids can come and go. These portables will be around the playground area, so I don't know what the noise level will be."
Parents won't really have a choice when it comes to redistricting, she added.
"If you care about class size, you have to be redistricted and, hopefully, you can do it just one time," Wojdon said. "I'm not against redistricting right now. I think it has to happen. The question is how many times will [the school system] do it based on the recent developments."
Kelly Balchunas, PTA president and parent of two Waverly Elementary students, said the Ellicott City school's recent construction will eliminate the need for its three portables, two of which have been there for a couple of years. Despite the expanded school, Balchunas said they anticipate an additional 100 to 125 students in the coming year, which will bring the building back to overcapacity as projected in the 2016 feasibility study.
Redistricting may solve overcrowding, she said, but it will have students spend more time traveling to their destination.
"I understand the need for it and that people in the county are eying up the schools in the west," Balchunas said. "How far are these kids going to be transported on buses and at what time of day? I don't see that being a solution in the slightest."