The Howard County school board signaled last week that it plans to exercise a larger voice in residential rezoning decisions by lobbying against building homes in already crowded school districts.
Upset by repeated cuts in funding for school construction by the county council, board members said they feel compelled to break their traditional silence on zoning issues and speak out against individual proposals that would add more students to the school system.
They say they have no choice because the county government will not guarantee enough money to build the necessary schools.
The board's move also marks the latest step in its political squabbling with the county council over money, a fight that broke into the open during this spring's county budget deliberations.
The only zoning request to be opposed by the board is a proposal to rezone 34 acres in Elkridge from light manufacturing to permit modular homes.
The board first vocally opposed the zoning petition by Blue Stream Partnership Ltd. in February. It then renewed its opposition Thursday night -- one day after the project received a positive recommendation from the county Planning Board. The zoning petition still requires the final approval of the county Zoning Board.
Board members made it clear that their opposition to the Blue Stream zoning petition is not a one-time thing. They say they plan to examine all proposed major zoning changes to determine whether they would worsen conditions in crowded schools.
"We do not have any authority in zoning issues, but we want to make certain that the people who make the zoning decisions have the correct information and have a recommendation from the board on the impact of their decisions," school board chairwoman Susan Cook said.
"The only reason we would offer an opinion on a zoning issue is if the schools in the area are already over capacity or projected to be over capacity in the very near future," she said.
Members of the county planning and zoning boards say that letters from the school board opposing particular zoning requests are unlikely to have much of an effect on their decisions, because the school system already provides
statistical information to the county Department of Planning and Zoning on how proposed zoning changes would affect area schools.
"They need to do what they think is best from their point of view," said Joan Lancos, chairwoman of the planning board. "We look at many reports, including the Board of Education, public works . . . and the State Highway Administration, and we consider every one of them carefully as we balance the different interests."
Charles C. Feaga, chairman of the County Council which also serves as the county zoning board, had a more blunt response to the school board's new stance: "They ought to stay out of what they're not obligated to do."
Even if the planning and zoning boards choose not to follow the school board's opposition to any future projects, the board's statements probably will publicize school overcrowding -- publicity that could help the board gain more money from the county council to build schools.
Board members say they are not opposed to new residential development but are angered by cuts made in recent years in requests for money to build and renovate schools.
"It is simply a recommendation. The planning and zoning boards don't have to give it any weight," Ms. Cook said. "But at least we as a system have spoken out and said: 'Enough is to enough. We can't handle more students without more funding.' "
This month, the school board approved a $45.2 million capital budget for fiscal 1996, about $6 million less than it originally had sought from the county.
The cuts forced the school system to make significant reductions to the sizes of proposed elementary and middle schools and to scale back planned renovations of high schools. Meanwhile, the 36,000-pupil school system is expected to grow by about 30 percent by 2004, to 47,000 students.
Mr. Feaga defended the county's funding for the construction of schools, saying that the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance has done a good job of regulating development to ensure that there are enough spaces for all students. That ordinance delays housing projects for as many as four years if area schools are crowded, providing time for needed classrooms to be built.
Because the schools in the area are crowded, the public facilities law probably would prevent Blue Stream from building modular homes on the site right now. But the proposal before the Zoning Board requests only that the land be rezoned for residential use, not that a building proposal be approved.
The County Council says it has lived up to its responsibilities by never failing to provide a school deemed necessary by predicted enrollment growth. But school board members argue that cuts in the capital budget are forcing the construction of schools that are smaller than planned while having to accommodate growing numbers of students.
"The numbers are still there, and the effect is still going to be there," Ms. Cook said. "When the community is upset because more students are being packed into smaller classrooms and smaller schools, the zoning board and the planning board aren't going to hear about it. The school system will have to deal with it."
School board members are carefully trying to avoid charges of managing issues outside of their jurisdiction -- a concern that was raised at Thursday night's meeting.
But member Linda Johnston said the board needs to make "strong statements."
"We have a right to express our concerns, just like other citizens," she said.
Caught in the middle of the dispute are the county's developers and
homebuilders, who understand the school board's position but are tired of the fighting between the two elected bodies.
"I give the school board credit for their stand, but they've got a very myopic view because their sole concern is the welfare of the students, while the County Council looks at the entire county," said Howard Saslow, president of the Howard County Chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.
"I find it hard to believe that we can't find some resolution and that we have to perpetuate this conflict, because it's not serving the community at all. . . . We're caught in the middle of it," he said.
Although the school board plans to look more carefully at individual zoning petitions, the school system has no immediate plans to change the way it analyzes projects, said Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
Dr. Cousin said officials will continue to look at new residential projects to determine how many additional students they will add to neighborhood schools but will not recommend to the board whether it should oppose particular projects.
Instead, it will be up to board members to determine on their own whether they want to oppose a zoning petition based on the enrollment projections.
For example, at Thursday night's school board meeting, school officials also presented information on a proposed zoning change that would permit 345 apartments to be built in Columbia's Town Center.
Although the residential development would add more students to the system, no crowding is projected at the neighborhood schools and the school board did not even discuss opposing the petition.