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Officials to target crowding in schools

Responding to angry parents, who vow to drag them kicking and screaming if necessary to do something about school crowding, the Harford County executive and County Council members moved last week to work more closely together to solve what is being called a crisis in education.

"I encourage members of the County Council to work collectively among themselves and with me to address the school issue," said County Executive James M. Harkins. "I'm optimistic that if we can work together, we can come up with solutions."

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After a nearly two-hour meeting with Harkins on Thursday morning, Council President Robert S. Wagner said, "There was renewed interest on this side of the street" to work with the administration, which is housed across Bond Street from the council chamber. "We are closer to being on the same page now than any time I can remember."

Harkins was a bit disturbed that he learned from reading a newspaper July 6 about a bill to be introduced in the council last Tuesday that could make significant changes in the county's adequate public facilities, or APF, laws.

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Under the proposed bill, preliminary approval for new houses would be halted by the county in any school zone where enrollment at an elementary school was greater than 105 percent of the school's rated capacity.

For middle and high schools, it would halt preliminary approval in school zones when a school topped 110 percent of its rated capacity.

Under the current law, the preliminary approval process is interrupted when a school's capacity reaches 120 percent.

At the last minute, sponsors of the bill decided to delay its introduction until next month. They said this would give a county task force studying the economic impact of such legislation on the county more time. The task force is scheduled to complete its study by Sept. 30.

Harkins declined to comment about being left out of the loop regarding the APF bill, other than to say, "The past is the past. We need to look to the future."

He said he wants the future to include better communication between his office and the council chamber.

Harkins said he talked with each member of the council last week as part of his effort to improve relations.

"We are rounding the bend to better communications," he said. "We are finding common ground on real solutions. Everybody agrees on the scope of the problem - we need to find solutions that are agreeable to everybody at the table."

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Harkins said he agrees with council members who say the APF laws need to be changed.

"But this is only one of several issues," he said. "We have to address the issues of school funding, school capacity and school construction."

Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp said each council member met with Harkins last week. She said cooperation between the two branches of government is essential to solving the school problem. "The legislation comes from [the council]," she said, "but the funding comes from [the county executive's office]."

"We're trying to bring everyone on board," she said. "We all know we have a problem and we have to work together to figure out a way to deal with it."

Stepp said that in hindsight, it would have been better to have notified the county executive the APF bill was coming. "This is a very emotional issue and maybe it would have been better to inform him," she said. "But where is it written that this has to happen? It was not intentional to leave him out of the loop. If that's the biggest mistake we make, we're doing good."

"There is no doubt that the council and county executive have a lot closer working relationship," said Councilman Lance C. Miller. "But it is never going to be a smooth, loving-feeling process."

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Nor was it a smooth process for task force members who met Thursday evening to continue their debate over changes in the APF laws as they pertain to schools.

During the meeting, members of the task force questioned whether any change in the law would help reduce the crowding in schools.

Task force member and Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said the APF law is not working because it does not have a funding mechanism to pay for the construction of a new school when a new school is needed.

John Scotten Jr., the assistant treasurer, warned that it would cost the county about $3.2 million a year to pay the debt on a bond issue to fund the construction of a planned $40 million middle and high school complex near Bel Air.

Council member Richard C. Slutzky said there also would be the additional expense each year of operating the school.

Frank F. Hertsch said new housing construction in the county, which has held steady at 1.8 percent a year for the past decade, is not the only problem. He is president of the Abingdon engineering company Morris Ritchie Associates and represents the home builders industry on the task force.

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He agreed that the big problem with current APF law is that it does nothing to help fund school construction.

Deb Merlock, with the Harford County Council of PTAs, said a problem with the 1.8 percent growth in new housing each year is that much of the growth is concentrated in small sections of the county where it puts a strain on schools.

Slutzky said the task force needs to be looking for new revenue streams to help pay for new schools.

Wagner said the council is scheduled to meet with members of the county's legislative delegation Thursday to discuss new sources of funding for school construction.

"APF is nothing more than a red flag that warns us we have to do something," Hertsch said.

"APF is not the solution," said Valerie Twanmoh, of Friends of Harford County. "Nobody thinks we can solve our school problem by changing APF."

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Slutzky solicited a hearty round of laughter when he interjected: "Guthrie does."

He was referring to Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a task force member who first proposed changes in the APF laws in early March to halt new housing approval in a school zone where any school exceeded 100 percent of its intended enrollment.

Nobody was laughing Tuesday night when about 40 angry parents of schoolchildren filled the council chamber.

Some carried homemade poster-board signs with slogans such as "Harford County loves builders but not children."

Several had pointed remarks about Harkins and politics surrounding the proposed APF legislation. Lisa Murdock, who lives in the Harford County section of Baldwin, said that she had been hopeful before the bill was pulled that there was a "twinkling of light at the end of a long tunnel." After the last-minute move to withhold the bill, she said, she hoped she wasn't seeing "a light from the Harkins Express."

She said the county executive is "a follower in this crusade, not a leader."

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Lisa Ziskind of Fallston expressed disappointment at her council representative, Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith. She said the councilwoman had a "kind of blank" look when parents were talking about crowding. "I am sorry she never speaks on that issue," Ziskind said to wide applause from the audience.

Kevin Mayhew of Fallston told council members, "The people of this county are going to drag you kicking and screaming, whether you like it or not" to do something about the conditions of schools in the county.

Sun staff reporter Lane Harvey Brown contributed to this article.


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