The problem is clear: Houses are being built faster than schools in Carroll County.
The solution is not so simple for a conservative county that doesn't like to raise taxes or discourage development. The county commissioners approved a piggyback tax last year to help catch up with the growth, but now they are asking educators to consider building larger schools and putting more children in each classroom.
"Right now, if we can go to a larger class, it might help us out in our financial situation," said Commissioner Richard Yates.
The commissioners control the school budget, but decisions about class size are up to the county school board, and board members and administrators have not been in favor of larger classes or larger schools.
They acknowledge the need to deal creatively with growth but say they will make decisions on what is best for children.
For example, the board dismissed a request -- later withdrawn -- by a county planning official that it redraw district lines for Friendship Valley and William Winchester elementary schools so that a developer could put up more houses in Westminster.
"It's not educationally defensible," said board member Joseph D. Mish. "We'd be moving children around every few years."
Superintendent Brian Lockard said he will take the commissioners' latest request to his staff for study and make recommendations to the school board.
His recommendations are not likely to match the commissioners' requests for larger school buildings and larger classes.
"There are some studies showing a relationship between school size and disorder," Dr. Lockard said. And, although research is unclear about what size class is ideal, he said, it stands to reason that teachers can't give the same amount of individual attention to 30 students that they can to 25.
"Youngsters are coming in with more and more problems, and it's even more critical," he said.
A bold suggestion
Mr. Yates' suggestion on class size was a bold one, considering the parents who crowd school budget hearings every year saying classes in Carroll are already too large.
Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown also suggested larger classes few months ago, in a meeting with the school board.
Mr. Yates and Mr. Brown said they don't like the idea of larger class sizes but that they think it could be a short-term solution.
"Only to help us out in the money pit we're in now," Mr. Yates said. He said he would prefer more students per class than the current practice of using portable classrooms appended to buildings constructed as recently as four years ago.
Although the policy is to have an average of about 25 students per class, the reality is about 28, and some classes have more than 30 students.
Carroll County has a higher student-teacher ratio than 20 of the 23 other school districts statewide and ranks 17th in per-student spending.
Amid those handicaps, Carroll students usually are among the top performers in the state on standardized test scores, and the schools rank high in the percentage of staff members who are teachers.
"It is completely unacceptable" to raise class sizes, said Linda Murphy, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs. "Building and development needs to be balanced with the rest of the community at large. Who are we helping? Who are we hurting? What is our goal?"
Ms. Murphy said she isn't against development, noting that her husband is a builder and her father-in-law a developer.
"That is our livelihood, but the education of our children is very important," said the Eldersburg mother of two.
School board President Ann M. Ballard said the county should require more of those who profit from the growth, for example, by asking large developers to donate land for schools.
"They come in here, you know they're making millions, and they're taking the money with them," Ms. Ballard said.
With a record of achievement by the Carroll schools, Commissioner Donald I. Dell said, he is willing to defer to the school board and staff on what they think is best for children.
But Commissioners Brown and Yates favor building schools larger to begin with, because they're filling up so fast.
A quest for 'effiency'
State funding formulas don't allow for much room to grow, so the county would have to take on a larger share of the building costs. Mr. Brown and Mr. Yates said they would be willing to do that to build a school that could hold 700 or 750 students. Mr. Brown said another possibility is building a school for 600 but designed for an addition that would hold 150 more students.
"There's a science that goes into [determining class and school building sizes] that leads it to efficiency," said Mr. Dell, the commissioners' representative on the school board. "If the school system has developed that, I'd have to say I can't argue with it."
Carroll officials strive for 600 students per elementary school and 750 per middle school. A committee is working on a similar formula for high schools.
The elementary formula is the most efficient in the use of teachers in the specialty areas, such as music, physical education and art, Dr. Lockard said. A school of 600 students requires one full-time teacher in each of those areas. An increase or reduction in the number of students would mean using part-time staff members.
Even new schools crowded
Elementary schools range from 350 students at Charles Carroll to 832 at Carrolltowne. Even new schools are reaching and exceeding capacity. Spring Garden, Friendship Valley and Piney Ridge schools, all less than 5 years old, have portable classrooms to hold overflows of 100 to 200 students.
For middle schools, the formula is to have two teams -- each with five teachers and 125 students -- at each of the three grade levels.
Building larger schools wouldn't solve the problem, Mr. Mish said.
"It's just going to give the planning commission license to approve more permits," and the county would still have to put up portable classrooms to accommodate the students, he said.
Fellow board member Carolyn Scott concurred. "Once you do that, you put up portables and you've got 950 students," she said.