County Council poised to tackle school crowding

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In what could presage a major re-examination of Howard County's school crowding problems, the County Council is expected tomorrow night to delay an annual vote to adopt charts controlling which school districts will be open and which will be closed to development in 2006.

The effect of the delay will leave large sections of the county - including the entire west and the northeastern school regions - closed to builders until the county resolves three issues, according to several council members.

They are:

Obtaining land on which to build two elementary schools scheduled to open in 2006.

How to pay for more new buildings in view of the state's fiscal woes.

How all-day kindergarten will affect crowding.

Complicating the situation are continuing problems with the accuracy of enrollment predictions for individual schools.

"There's no land yet for the new schools. Until we hear word on how to deal with long-term capital needs," the council won't include the two proposed schools in any chart, said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Guzzone and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon said several possible charts are under council scrutiny, and a new version may be selected after discussion Monday night.

If that happens, the council would invite more public comment at the monthly public hearing July 21 before it votes July 29, the last council legislative session before its August hiatus.

"We always adopt a chart in July. We ought to try to meet that schedule," Merdon said. Even then, however, the western and northeastern parts of the county are likely to remain closed to new development until land for the two planned schools is secured, council members said.

"I would feel more comfortable waiting until we had a plan for how to fund these schools," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

The confluence of problems has renewed calls from some critics for scrapping - or at least revamping - the county's 11-year-old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which was intended to limit building around crowded schools three years in advance and give the county at least that much time to catch up.

"I think we need to revisit the concept," said Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat.

He is not alone.

Merdon, too, called the debate over the chart "a short-term issue" that should be followed by an "overhaul" of APFO. Whichever chart is adopted, "we need to make sure the County Council determines development policy, not the Board of Education," Merdon said.

The money problem is acute, according to school board member Courtney Watson.

"We have a $125 million capital budget [for fiscal 2005], and we're concerned we won't have seats for these kids," said Watson, who has also worked on revising APFO. "I think we need a dedicated source of funds for school construction to provide guaranteed funding. We need experts to look at this problem."

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, proposed in January to increase the county real estate transfer tax and use the revenue to leverage $215 million in school construction over eight years, but local state legislators rejected the idea. A committee is to soon begin examining ways of paying for school construction.

"APFO needs a complete overhaul," Watson said, noting all the problems. "It's a mess. There's no doubt about it."

Deborah Wessner, executive president of the Howard County PTA Council, said her group wants the council to delay a vote for all the reasons noted.

"Why should we open up [more areas to building] and get even more kids into the county? It's the sum of all fears for parents - more homes, more students and higher taxes," she said, advocating a "new mechanism for planning."

The county should also account for higher housing density planned for Columbia and along the U.S. 1 corridor, she said.

Thomas Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, agreed that the county should consider scrapping the APFO system.

"Tabling [the chart] again means it's very unpredictable for families and kids and for builders. More than half the new enrollments are coming from turnover in [existing] houses," he said, adding that this makes controlling only new development less effective in preventing school crowding.

Elderly landowners expecting to sell land to finance their retirements will also be affected, said Security Development LLC principal James R. "Rob" Moxley III.

The point of the charts is to help provide predictability for everyone. Tabling the vote on the charts "makes it less predictable," he said.

David C. Drown, the school system's expert on enrollment projections, said the board should act soon on a plan to phase in all-day kindergartens at eight schools a year, starting next year, but getting deeds to land for new western and northeastern elementary schools could take months - perhaps the rest of the year.

If the council's vote is postponed and the current charts are retained, development will not be permitted in 2006 around eight elementary schools and Patapsco Middle School - all with enrollments projected over the 115 percent limit. If the proposed western and northeastern elementary schools are excluded, both those entire regions will be closed.

The new chart before the council opens both those areas to more building in 2006, leaving development stymied only around five elementary schools and Patapsco Middle. The proposed northern elementary, planned for a 2007 opening, should relieve crowding at Hollifield Station and Northfield elementary schools.

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