Building ban likely in two school areas


Two western Howard County elementary school districts likely will be closed to development in 2003 - and a third might follow - as the County Council prepares to vote tonight on school capacity figures that are key to a law limiting home construction around crowded schools.

Western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman plans to amend an enrollment chart that includes projections vs. capacity for Bushy Park and Lisbon elementary schools. The chart is flawed, he said, and both schools are likely to exceed capacity in three years.

Also, parents from Manor Woods Elementary School are pushing for a revision to its enrollment numbers that would close that district to new construction.

Until now, only Pointers Run Elementary was projected to be closed to development in 2003 because of crowding.

In addition, Kittleman said, he plans to amend the enrollment chart for Waverly, which is expected to fall just under the 115 percent crowding limit in the law.

The renewed debate over school crowding and how to control it is part of the larger struggle to manage growth in Howard, one of Maryland's fastest-growing counties over the past 35 years.

The county is often caught between competing pressures from developers who say they are whipping boys for school crowding and parents who think builders throw up homes faster than the county can build schools to keep up with the population.

If Kittleman's move is approved by the council, it means that starting Wednesday builders must wait until July 2001 to begin the three-year approval process that would allow them to start work in two of those districts.

The chart was flawed for Bushy Park and Lisbon, Kittleman said, because the figures assumed additions to both school buildings will be ready in August 2003. The additions aren't scheduled to open until 2004. That would leave Lisbon 29 percent over capacity in 2003 and Bushy Park 34 percent over.

County law blocks processing of new developments once a school is more than 15 percent over capacity.

"I'm scratching my head because it doesn't make sense," Kittleman said.

At Manor Woods, which is projected to be three students under the number at which development would be cut off , parents say the chart's figures are outdated.

Mary Catherine Cochran, a past president of the school's PTA, said 21 more children have enrolled for first grade next year than were counted on the chart.

She said parents at Manor Woods are skeptical of the school system's projections, which show four additional students from 2003 to 2004 and four more the following year.

"We're on an upwards trend," Cochran said of Manor Woods' enrollment. "How accurate are these numbers?"

Kittleman said he's equally leery of projections for several other western county elementary schools, such as Triadelphia Ridge and West Friendship. He might revisit the issue in coming months, he said, to amend the chart further, closing more districts to development.

"I am definitely looking into Manor Woods," he said. "Most schools out there [western Howard] are at capacity or over."

A discussion of the situation at a council work session Tuesday revealed little confidence in the chart's numbers, even by Assistant Superintendent Maurice Kalin, who said he has "feelings" that some of the enrollments projected for the western county might be low.

"I feel what you feel," Kalin told the council members, adding that he doesn't have enough evidence to change the projections but is working on finding a more reliable way of arriving at them.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican whose district has a number of crowded schools, said he thinks the whole system of projections on the chart is flawed and perhaps should be replaced.

He noted that in 1997 it was projected that Ilchester Elementary in his district would have 587 pupils by 2000. In fact, the school was overwhelmed with 700 children, nearly 20 percent more.

C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who has served on the council since 1982, blamed crowding in the northeast on former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, who delayed plans for a new elementary school in the area.

The school was put back into the capital budget last year and is to open in 2003.

Kalin said the crowding would have been relieved by moving northeast students to empty seats in Columbia's schools until the county decided to reduce class sizes in first and second grades, which took most of the space.

Gray said space is available in Columbia's schools and that children should be shifted to those seats before millions of dollars are spent on new buildings.

"I'm going to refuse to vote for any new schools until we use [existing] capacity," he said. "We have to be reasonable and prudent."

Alluding to the emotional opposition that often greets redistricting plans, Kalin said he would be happy if council members testified for a specific redistricting before the school board.

"We're asked to adopt legislation [the chart] that I have no confidence in," he said during the work session.

He said later, "I don't believe it's a good tool. The methods they use don't seem to work."

Other members shared those doubts, and county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. noted another problem, the difficulty in predicting how many new students will come from homes once were occupied by older couples and now house young families.

"You could not build one new house for 12 months, and I'll bet you'd still get 1,000 to 1,400 new students anyway," Rutter told the council.

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