SCHOOL OFFICIALS in Howard had little choice but to cap capacity of its three new high schools at 1,600 apiece, while raising enrollments in seven older high schools to 1,332. Their decision strikes a reasonable compromise between two forces -- booming enrollment and funding constraints. Caught between this rock and a hard place, the board correctly backed off making new construction the cornerstone of its response to growth. Instead, less costly expansion and renovation will take center stage.
This shift from new school construction to a greater reliance on renovations and additions has been underway in Maryland for a few years. Moreover, it is a direction endorsed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
In fiscal year 1991, for example, the state spent $50 million to build new schools and $25 million on school renovations and additions. For the current fiscal year, that ratio more than reversed itself: $26 million on new construction, $70 million on renovations and additions.
People with school-aged children might prefer new schools in a perfect world, but presumably they will support this alternative over the prospect of large-scale redistricting, another way to address school overcrowding. Redistricting will still occur, but it can be minimized by keeping students within existing school districts through increased capacity.
Nevertheless, the school board's decision raises concerns that must be addressed over time. The unique needs of each school must be considered. And, support services -- cafeterias, parking, playing fields -- can't be ignored.
The student population in Howard County schools is due to increase by nearly 30 percent in the next decade. While that may be down from earlier projections, it's still triple the state average. The growth rate will be particularly acute in secondary schools: 44 percent. Officials project that the high school population will increase by 400 students a year through 2008. The compromise reached by the board could eliminate the need for a new high school in Fulton by the year 2002. If Howard's system can accommodate its growth in more efficient ways that maintain community support, there's no sense in building too many schools, which demographics suggest will become obsolete into the next century.