Harford's 'Kid Crunch'


Harford County has a headache. The Baltimore-area's most rapidly growing county is looking at the need for as many as 15 new schools, not to mention expansion of others, by 1998. The projected bill: a staggering $108 million.

The reason is explosive growth in new homes that has been occurring countywide over the last five or so years, particularly in the Route 24 corridor. New housing begets children, who need schools, which means big tax bucks.

Harford's "kid crunch" is showing already. Half the county's elementary schools each have between one and 10 portable classrooms. One school is using half its gym for classroom space; that same school has moved its entire fifth-grade class to a middle-school building. By 1996, more than 9,200 additional students are expected to be attending public schools -- a 29 percent increase.

County Executive Eileen Rehrmann has done what many new executives do when faced with such a problem -- appoint a citizens task force to examine the issue. If nothing else, she'll hear lots of opinions; her panel has 26 appointees. We hope Forest Hill banker Raymond Hamm, who is chairing this huge group, can guide it to some useful conclusions by its January deadline. "Banking" land for future school use, financing alternatives that may even touch on privatization, and new designs are among ideas to be kicked around. Mr. Hamm understands the reality of public finance in the '90s; "excruciating" is the adjective he uses.

We urge county taxpayers, particularly those generating the demand for new schools, to be realistic. In addition to schools, Harford faces predictable calls for other costly services that run with explosive growth -- libraries, parks, recreational facilities, senior services, law enforcement and jail expansion. With taxpayers balking at added government expense and federal and state resources slowing to a trickle, local governments find themselves sorting through priorities with added vigor; this school crisis is just an early manifestation for Harford taxpayers.

Portable classrooms alone won't satisfy the growth facing Harford schools, although they help. Nor will redrawing school boundaries to move some children in new communities to older schools with spare classroom space. That has to be done, though, despite the howls of dissent that greeted such a proposal earlier this year. Mrs. Rehrmann correctly believes that going to the bond market -- something her predecessors vigorously resisted -- is both advisable and necessary. At least interest rates are down and the county has significant borrowing potential.

But carte blanche building every new school deemed desirable by the school board is impractical. Harford County's new populace needs to understand that fiscal reality and search creatively for alternatives.

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