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Baltimore County's Crowded Schools


Baltimore County's public elementary schools are bursting at the seams. Fifteen of the county schools for grades one through five are more than 20 percent above capacity. Another six schools are expected to earn this unfortunate distinction in September, when 3,700 more students are added to the rolls. Forty-seven schools -- half the total number of public elementary schools in Baltimore County -- are over capacity.

Adding to concerns about overcrowding is an estimate that, by decade's end, the county's public school enrollment will total 120,000, a 33 percent increase from the current figure of 90,000.

The county government previously tried to address this problem by enacting an 18-month building moratorium in severely crowded school districts, a ban that is due to expire June 30. The idea was to give county officials time to work out a solution. But with the 18-month period about to end, no real plan has emerged. Instead, County Executive Roger B. Hayden has proposed making the ban permanent, thereby giving county officials more time to come up with a solution.

To quote Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers continue to howl about students packed like sardines into classrooms. Developers scream that the building ban hurts their business. New students keep marching into crowded schools. And the Hayden administration responds by urging a plan that really isn't any plan at all.

Granted, the inability to build new schools or hire new teachers partly results from the recession's impact on the county budget. A consultant's study last year said the county would have to spend nearly $250 million to build new schools by the year 2000, which would sorely stretch the county's capital budget.

So, what to do? Write a bond issue that would cover much of the cost of new school construction? Raise taxes again?

Government leaders must grapple with tough questions such as these. But, in addition to a bundle of money, what seems to be missing is commitment on the part of county officials to attack a bad problem that promises to get worse.

During a meeting scheduled for today, the county council will consider a compromise bill in which another temporary ban would be imposed. This time, however, they reportedly will toss in a few definite ideas for easing overcrowding, including pushing up the dates of planned school construction. To placate developers, the bill probably will allow limited residential construction in moratorium areas.

Whatever action the executive and the council ultimately take, they should do more than simply maintain the status quo while the schools become more congested. Public officials like to claim they have the interests of children at heart. Now it's time for those officials in Baltimore County to put their money where their mouths are.

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