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School capacity bill gets support

Anne Arundel County school board members voted yesterday to support a bill that could change the way local officials calculate school capacity and the process by which building permits are issued to developers.

County Planning Officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr. appeared at the Board of Education's monthly meeting yesterday to build consensus for the bill, which was introduced to the County Council last month. The school board meeting represents the first time it was debated publicly. Council members will discuss the bill at a meeting Aug. 18.

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If adopted, the legislation would allow school officials to create a formula for calculating school capacity, potentially lowering enrollment caps beyond state standards. In addition, it would give the county six years from the date a builder files preliminary plans to provide school seats, either through redistricting, additions or new construction. If seats are still unavailable at the end of six years, the developer would be allowed to build anyway.

As it is, some developers have been waiting a decade or more for school seats. In years past, some builders were allowed to build in areas without school capacity by making cash payments to the county, a practice that caused chaos in some feeder systems. County Executive Janet S. Owens put an end to the practice when she was elected in 1998.

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"The focus of this bill is to create a clear and open process," said Rutter, who has been working with Schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith to revise the county's adequacy of facilities law. County code prohibits new housing in crowded school systems. Four out of 12 school systems are shut today because of a lack of school seats.

For their part, developers have cried foul, and some have filed lawsuits in an attempt to dispute school enrollment figures or prove that the government has unlawfully taken away the value of their property. Builders have long complained that officials have failed to keep up with residential growth when it comes to school capacity.

Several members of the building community attended the school board meeting yesterday. Susan Stroud Davies, co-director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said her group has not taken a position on the bill.

"We're still looking at all of the ramifications," she said, adding that the proposed six-year waiting period for school capacity may be too long for some builders. Some developers already have waited years for school seats to open in popular neighborhoods such as the county's Broadneck region, which includes Severna Park.

"It does provide some predictability into the process," added Stroud Davies. "And that is encouraging."

School board members voted 6-2 to support the legislation, with President Paul G. Rudolph and member Eugene Peterson dissenting. Peterson said that even if the county has six years' warning regarding a housing boom, the funding to build a new school may not be available. As a result, school officials may have to take money from worthy projects to avoid an enrollment crunch elsewhere.

In another matter, Smith gave his first State of the Schools report to board members. His report recapped progress in 10 areas, including teacher training and curriculum alignment in reading, writing, literature and math. He said participation in high school Advanced Placement courses is expected to increase in the coming school year by more than 2,000 students.

Although state and local budget cuts have delayed implementation of some new programs and expansion of others, including a cost-of-living raise for teachers, Smith said he believed that his first year as head of the school system was a successful one.

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Board members agreed.

"You were baptized by fire," said board member Tricia Johnson of Smith's first year. "First it was the sniper and then it was the snow. But you really weathered it well."


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