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High school expansions protested Proposal could bring Centennial, Howard capacities to 1,600; PTAs will meet tonight; School board plans to decide Thursday; no public hearing set


Parents and students in the Centennial and Howard high school districts are scrambling to fight a proposal before the Howard County school board to expand the two schools' official capacities to 1,600 students.

The PTAs at both schools will meet tonight to gather parents' opinions on the expansion plans, which would increase the capacities of the schools to either 1,400 or 1,600 students.

The school board is scheduled to decide Thursday how much to expand each school, two weeks after being told that increasing the schools' capacities to 1,600 students would be more cost-efficient than holding them to 1,400 students.

No public hearing will be held before the board makes its decision.

"We need people to write or call the board and tell them what they think," said Ellen Rennels, second vice president of Centennial's PTA. "People don't seem to know that this very important decision is about to be made."

With Howard County's student enrollment projected to grow almost 30 percent in the next decade, the board has decided it needs to renovate and expand high schools to alleviate future overcrowding.

The board already has rejected plans to expand Glenelg High because the school's septic system can't support a larger building. The board is awaiting cost studies on expanding Atholton, Mount Hebron and Oakland Mills high schools.

The cost studies on expanding Centennial and Howard show that the per-pupil costs of expanding to 1,600 students are lower than expanding to 1,400 students. Expanding and renovating the 1,085-pupil capacity Centennial to 1,400 would cost $4.5 million, while expanding it to 1,600 students would cost only $1.2 million more.

Most parents had assumed that the board would not decide on the sizes of Centennial and Howard until it began work on the fiscal 1997 capital budget later this fall. The expansions are not scheduled to be completed until August 1998.

But after learning about the cost estimates two weeks ago, the board agreed to move up the decision to this week to give school officials time to finish drawing new high school boundary lines.

This year's round of school redistricting will begin Nov. 1, or 2 1/2 months earlier than usual because so many high school students are expected be transferred next fall.

The quick decision prevents the board from holding any public hearings on Centennial and Howard, but the board has been discussing the question of high school sizes for more than a year.

"This has been talked about for a while, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone," said board member Stephen Bounds.

For example, last January the board heard a report that the size of a school apparently does not harm the academic performance of students but does limit pupils' opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

However, many Centennial and Howard parents say they were surprised to hear that the decision on their schools will be made so quickly. They now are trying to convince parents of children in elementary and middle schools to speak up, too.

"If they add on to the building, the hallways don't get any bigger," said Howard High parent Nancy Yee.

"Howard already has 1,705 students with its current capacity [of 1,233]. If they expand it to 1,600 students, how many students will be put in the school? 2,000?"

PTA presidents at some elementary and middle schools last week also urged parents to contact board members.

As of late last week, board members said that only a few people had contacted them about high school sizes.

But board members long have known the county officials' opinions on how much to expand existing high schools.

The Republican majority of the County Council and County Executive Charles I. Ecker want the board to expand existing high schools and scrap their plans to build a $30 million new high school to open in 2002.

If the county's six existing high schools were to be expanded by 200 additional students each at a total cost of about $10 million, that still would be $20 million less than acquiring land and constructing a new building.

"We can't afford to build all of the schools that are planned," said Councilman Darrel Drown.

"If I can boost the size of the existing high schools by a total of 1,000 to 1,200 students, than I save a new high school," he said.

Mr. Bounds said he is leaning toward the 1,600-student proposals, citing the substantial cost savings and the research showing that larger schools don't harm academic performance.

Centennial's PTA will meet tonight at 7:30 at the school; Howard's PTA executive board will meet at 7 tonight at the school. Parents are welcome.

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