The Howard County school board is set to approve a capital budget today that would increase the official capacities of new high schools to 1,600 pupils but limit older schools to 1,332 students.
Under a compromise worked out late Tuesday night, a board majority reluctantly agreed to expand the capacities of the county's three new high schools -- Long Reach, River Hill and Wilde Lake -- to 1,600 students. Long Reach and Wilde Lake are to open next fall; River Hill opened last year.
The board also will propose additions for the county's seven older high schools to expand their official capacities to 1,332 pupils. Their official capacities now range from 931 students to 1,163.
As enrollments at almost all of the seven high schools already exceed these limits, the issue of adding more students has been closely watched by parents and students concerned about the educational effects of crowding.
The board's decision will have a long-term impact: High school enrollment in the county is expected to increase steadily by 400 students per year through 2008.
The board compromise rejects a recommendation from Superintendent Michael E. Hickey that the official capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron high schools be expanded to 1,600 -- a recommendation that had drawn strong opposition from parents in areas served by the two schools.
"If we're going to put extra capacity some place, I'm very much in favor of putting it in the new facilities," said board member Stephen Bounds during a work session late Tuesday night. "They can handle it better."
Increas- ing schools' official capacities to 1,600 students means their enrollments could be more than 2,000, because the Howard school system permits official capacities to be exceeded by 20 percent or more. For example, Howard High's student population already tops 1,600, despite an official capacity of 1,163.
Dr. Hickey pointed to Howard High's successes -- even with more than 1,600 students -- as evidence that both it and Mount Hebron could be expanded.
But parents, students and several board members have said that the two schools' buildings and their relatively small hallways could not handle the crush of additional students. They said they also feared that the larger number of students would reduce opportunities for pupils to become involved in extracurricular activities.
At a public hearing last week, PTA groups from elementary, middle and high schools urged the board not to expand Howard and Mount Hebron beyond 1,400. Sympathetic board members spent almost 3 1/2 hours Tuesday night trying to satisfy their request.
"I am to the point where we have to take a stand and say enough is enough," said Chairwoman Susan Cook, noting that county government officials have told the board to expand existing high schools rather than build new ones. "We have to do what is educationally sound, and I am having a difficult time reconciling 1,600 to what is educationally sound.
"They're looking at dollars," she said, "and I'm looking at educational value and dollars."
Under a compromise proposed by Mr. Bounds and tentatively agreed to by at least two other board members, the board directed school officials to draw up a new capital budget that would expand the official capacities of Long Reach, River Hill and Wilde Lake to 1,600 pupils.
It was not clear whether the way to expand those schools' capacities would be through a permanent addition to their buildings or through the long-term use of portable classrooms. But the technology magnet programs scheduled to begin next fall in Long Reach and River Hill would remain in those schools.
The board also agreed that all older schools should be expanded officially to 1,332 students. Dr. Hickey's capital proposal had called for Atholton and Glenelg high schools not to expand, but board members said equity demanded that no high school be substantially smaller than the others.
A proposed addition to Glenelg was rejected by the board less than a month ago on the basis that the school's septic facilities are inadequate to handle more students.
But board members directed school officials to plan for an addition and find a way around the septic problem -- perhaps by piping sewage to another location or constructing on-site septic treatment facilities. They said Glenelg -- situated in the fast-growing western portion of Howard -- needs the additional capacity because so many more pupils are expected from that area.
Mr. Bounds said the compromise might allow the board to scrap plans for a new high school in Fulton in 2002, satisfying county demands to reduce future school construction. But the proposed high school will remain in long-term building plans at least one more year until officials have firmer projections of enrollment.
The compromise plan likely will require significant adjustments in the way the school system redistricts students for next year and future years. For example, it's possible that students from some areas might have to be assigned to more distant high schools because their neighborhood high schools are too crowded.