New developments reportedly destroyed redistricting plans


While a county school panel was trying to figure out how to accommodate 1,000 more students than Arundel High School can hold, county planners were approving four new developments in Crofton that would add even more students to the school.

School officials say the approvals have ruined their plans, setting the stage for another battle over redistricting.

"They negated all the countywide redistricting we did in Crofton," said Thomas Twombly, school board vice president "With a single stroke of a pen, before we were even done with countywide redistricting, the county executive had basically undone everything we did."

But county planners say the Board of Education knew about the subdivisions and got what it asked for.

"They saw it as a great opportunity to secure a school site," said Steven Cover, director of the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement. "If they'd said 'No, we're not interested in the land,' we wouldn't have taken it any further."

County planners agreed in December to waive regulations that forbid development where schools are overcrowded to allow developers to build 585 townhouses, 234 apartments and 280 detached houses in Crofton Farms, Canter Farms, Severn Valley Farm and Crofton Village.

In return, the developers deeded to the county 14.6 acres, valued at $1.5 million, for a new elementary school and agreed to pay fees estimated at $830,000. The money is set aside for school improvements.

School administrators contend they didn't know about the deal until after the waivers were approved.

"I had somebody from the Crofton community call about it, and I didn't have a clue," said Lawrence Ripley, a school planner. "They wanted to know why I approved it, but I told them I never saw and certainly didn't approve it."

School planners say Arundel High School can hold 1,853 students. In September it will have 1,935. By the year 2004, school officials project it will have about 2,800 students. And that doesn't include the 135 senior high students that are expected from the four new subdivisions.

Those subdivisions also are expected to add 261 students to local elementary schools and 127 to Arundel Middle School. None of them was accounted for in the redistricting, school planners said.

But county officials dispute those numbers.

"It may be 1,000 new kids, but it doesn't mean it will be 1,000 more kids," County Executive John G. Gary said, referring to the crowding at Arundel. "That's the trouble I have with the way some of these numbers are being used."

If the county's population is aging, it should produce fewer children, Mr. Gary said.

If Arundel gets too crowded, the school system should respond by sending some of those students to South River High School in Edgewater, which, coincidentally, has 1,000 empty seats, he said.

"You can't just keep building buildings . . . simply because the people aren't exactly where the buildings are . . .," Mr. Gary said.

The countywide redistricting committee considered sending the overflow Arundel students to South River, but abandoned the idea. Members said the bus ride was too long, the switch would break up the community of Crofton and parents would be aggravated.

Instead, the committee and Superintendent Carol S. Parham recommended designing a West County high school in 1998 to be open in 2001. In the interim, portable classrooms would be added to handle the overflow at Arundel.

Without the new high school, they said, the board would be forced to redistrict again -- always an unpopular move -- or explore split sessions and year-round classes.

But not all school board members agree the new school is necessary.

"I will oppose West County high school because I cannot justify spending $30 million on a new high school when we have so many needs at the elementary and middle level, and in older schools," Mr. Twombly said.

The problem, school planners say, is that county planners have targeted the West County for growth without making provisions for schools to handle the additional students.

"We've been trying for the last three or four months to tell them which schools are overcrowded," Mr. Ripley said. "As long as you have enrollments going up you have a real big problem. And when you have a school that's already seriously overcrowded, granting a waiver is a serious problem."

The county planners and executive say the bus route from Crofton to South River is only half again as long as the distance from Crofton to Arundel High in Gambrills.

"It is not as if it is an unacceptable distance for the students to travel," said Mr. Cover. "I don't know if it would have that much of a negative impact other than the parents would be upset."

Mr. Gary said school officials should "change their thinking" if they believe "you can't send teen-agers on a bus for half an hour to school.

"We can't afford to keep building new schools every six blocks," he said.

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