Guthrie calls bill on schools 'a joke'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Harford County councilman who has been leading the charge against crowding in public schools says he will not support the watered-down version of legislation he proposed earlier this year.

"It's a joke," Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said of a bill that was still being drafted Friday that would change the county's Adequate Public Facilities laws as they pertain to schools. The bill is scheduled to be introduced Tuesday.

"It will accomplish nothing," Guthrie said. "It says we don't care about our kids in school."

According to Council President Robert S. Wagner, the new proposal would impose a moratorium on the county's acceptance of preliminary approval for new housing development in any school district when a school in the district exceeds 115 percent of its rated student capacity.

This was one of the recommendations of a nine-member county task force that has been studying the county's APF laws since March.

Under the current law, enacted in 1991, a moratorium on preliminary approvals is triggered when a school's capacity reaches 120 percent.

"If the bill is at 115 percent, it will not have my name on it," said Guthrie, who represents Edgewood and Joppatowne. "I won't vote for anything over 110 percent."

He said the new proposal ignores the complaints of angry parents who have been filling the council chamber in recent months demanding that something be done about schools that have 25 percent more students than they were designed to handle.

Parents have complained that such conditions are unsafe and lead to fights in the hallways, art being taught on the auditorium stage, other classes taught in storage areas and a school climate not conducive to learning.

"To support this bill would amount to turning your back on those parents, ignoring our constituents," Guthrie said. "If council members want to do that, God bless them."

In March, Guthrie proposed changing the APF laws to limit residential development in any school district where a school had more than 100 percent of its rated student capacity.

In what he called a compromise, Guthrie agreed last month with three other members of the council to set the capacity at 105 percent for elementary schools and 110 percent for middle and high schools. That bill was delayed to allow for more input from the task force.

Guthrie said the task force wasted five months and ignored information from 11 other counties that have moved toward reducing new development in districts with crowded schools.

Not everyone on the council sees the situation the same as Guthrie.

Wagner said he is not a sponsor of the proposed new bill, but he conceded that he might eventually support it.

He acknowledges that the county faces a school crisis and says it will take more than a change in the APF laws to solve the problem.

"You can't draw a line and say it [new housing development] is the absolute cause [of school crowding]," Wagner said. "It is a contributing factor," he added, "but not the sole cause."

Wagner said the county school system was a victim of circumstances. He said a lack of lots for development in Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties, along with low interest rates, resulted in rash of development projects in Harford County moving ahead at two or three times their normal speed.

He said that even if the county halted all residential building permits, there would still be a spike in the school population because of the turnover in older houses.

Wagner said he has witnessed situations in the county, especially in the Churchville and Forest Hill areas, where families moved into new homes and there was increased demand on neighboring schools.

"Then came a period when nobody was getting on the school buses," he said. "Now we are back to filling up the school buses in those areas."

Referring to the new bill, the council president said: "Will it help the school situation in September? No. Will it be helpful in the future? Yes."

He said the task force was heavily influenced by the recommendation of Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas that 115 percent be the trigger that halts preliminary approval for home development.

Wagner said it will take a combination of things to solve the school problem, including finding new sources of revenue to pay for new schools. "We are going to need $6 million, $8 million or $10 million a year over the long haul, and we have got to make sure the funding source is constant."

An excise tax on new homes is one of the things the council is considering to finance school construction.

Wagner expressed concern that a moratorium on new housing development would cut off a major source of funding for schools. "We have got to balance things out," he said.

"We are not going to solve all the problems overnight," Wagner said. "But I think this is a logical beginning."

Valerie Twanmoh, who represents Friends of Harford Inc. on the task force studying the APF laws, said she would have preferred a lower percentage number in the new bill.

"Any reduction will be helpful," she said. "A lower number would be more ideal, but I'm not sure the task force could have reached an agreement on a lower number. This was a compromise."

A related bill scheduled for introduction Tuesday would set up a standing APF committee or board that would continue to study school capacity and home building and make recommendations to the council.

Guthrie said he would like the committee to meet quarterly.

The recommendations of the task force and the proposed bill are not expected to appease parents demanding better schools.

"Trust me when I tell you as a parent, citizen and taxpayer, I can't find much good in your [the task force's] recommendations," Lisa Murdock, a resident of Baldwin, said in a three-page e-mail to council members and school officials.

She said she was outraged by the task force's casual attempt "to define a sound, well-thought, analyzed, meaningful APF law to recommend to the County Council."

Murdock said the recommendation and the proposed legislation "are a complete disservice to the students, parents, teachers, administrators and support staff of our public schools."

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