When is a Baltimore County school overcrowded? It depends who's counting.
The school board bases its estimates of school capacity on an average of 24 students per classroom.
But County Executive Roger B. Hayden says the standard should be 26 students -- which is how he budgeted for teachers.
A bitter battle between Mr. Hayden and school officials over this small difference could determine the fate of a plan to reopen Sudbrook Middle School with magnet programs to reduce overcrowding without drawing new boundaries that could exacerbate racial tensions.
The Hayden administration says Sudbrook isn't needed. It argues that there are enough empty desks at other schools to relieve what -- by its count -- is minimal overcrowding at nearby Pikesville Middle School.
But by their count, school officials say Pikesville is heavily overcrowded -- with students overflowing into four portable classrooms. To solve that problem and head off future overcrowding, they want to reopen Sudbrook in 1994.
They asked for $500,000 to buy equipment for the reopening and thought they had it. But Mr. Hayden chopped the money from the school budget without informing them ahead of time.
Superintendent Stuart Berger said yesterday that if Sudbrook doesn't reopen, he will have to "gerrymander" school boundaries to shift some white students from Pikesville Middle school, which is predominantly white, to Old Court and Woodlawn middle schools, which are mostly black but have extra space. Sudbrook, closed 11 years ago because of declining enrollment, is located between Pikesville and the other two schools.
He said the school board can't just move the Pikesville Middle students who live closest to Old Court and Woodlawn. Since most of them are black, a simple boundary change would give Pikesville an even larger white majority and the other schools larger black majorities. School officials say this is wrong and possibly illegal.
The school board's plan, based on a year of community meetings and study, was to reopen Sudbrook as a magnet school with special academic programs that would attract black and white students from all over the northwestern county.
"We've got to weigh some expenditures against the turmoil created," Dr. Berger said. Dr. Berger and school board President Rosalie Hellman met yesterday in the executive's office to discuss Sudbrook with Mr. Hayden and administrative officer Merreen E. Kelly.
At times the meeting took on the overtones of a contentious reunion. Before running for county executive in 1990, Mr. Hayden spent 12 years on the school board, seven as president, and Mr. Kelly was a top school administrator. But with Mr. Hayden now calling the budget shots on one side, and a more activist school board with a new, outspoken superintendent on the other, the relationship between the schools and the administration has turned hostile.
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Hayden noted that the state uses 30 students per class in its formulas and that all new classrooms are built to that standard.
"You create false expectations in people's minds," the executive said, referring to the board's 24-1 class ratio. He said he was surprised that the board did not make class size -- and therefore school capacity -- a function of his budget.
But Ms. Hellman argued that when Mr. Hayden had her job, the board's goal was to lower class sizes to 20 students per room.
Mr. Hayden counterpunched, noting that Dr. Berger has said class size isn't that important. He also said that during his tenure on the board, average class sizes went down from 36 to 24 -- although that was largely the result of declining enrollment.
In any case, Mr. Hayden approved funds for Sudbrook last year, so school officials were stunned to learn that the money was cut this year -- after they'd spent months planning the reopening. The County Council was also upset and urged Mr. Hayden to reconsider.
Yesterday's bout ended without a decision, but Mr. Hayden promised to meet with the school board again to discuss the issue.