Bill aims to reduce school crowding


In a move aimed at tackling the twin hot-button issues of residential development and crowded classrooms, a Baltimore County councilman is seeking to tighten the law that prevents builders from putting new homes near schools that have exceeded their capacity.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, plans to introduce a bill tomorrow to trigger building moratoriums in districts where a school's enrollment exceeds its capacity by 5 percent, down from the current 15 percent. Presently, 26 elementary, middle and high schools in the county exceed the proposed limit.

"There are a lot of problems out there that need to be addressed as far as new school construction," said Bartenfelder, whose district covers the northeast portion of the county. "This is a bill that would help not only the northeast, but also the northwest."

But the impact of the bill remains unclear. Bartenfelder's legislation does not address the major loopholes in the present law that allow developers to build near the county's most crowded schools. For example, homes could be built near a school that is over capacity if a nearby school is under capacity.

Crowding problems have been noted throughout the county. A report compiled last year for the Board of Education by DeJong & Associates examined high school enrollment and found that schools in the northeastern and central part of the county will be 850 seats short by the 2007-2008 school year. It also concluded that a new high school is needed to ease crowding in Perry Hall, Towson and other growing communities.

According to the report, six high schools will have serious crowding problems by 2007: Milford Mill, Perry Hall, Kenwood, Towson, Pikesville and Sparrows Point. Building a high school would relieve crowding at Perry Hall, Kenwood, Towson and Pikesville.

On the west side, New Town High School opened in September. Two years earlier, New Town Elementary School opened its doors with far more pupils than it was designed for. It remains hundreds of pupils over capacity. Both schools are in fast-growing Owings Mills.

The school system says it needs to build at least two more elementary schools and a middle school on the west side.

The planning department only learned of Bartenfelder's bill last week and has not calculated how much of the county would be subject to the limits, said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the department's director.

Renee Samuels, a spokeswoman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said he is waiting to see what effect the bill would have before deciding whether to support it.

Bartenfelder is rumored to be considering a primary challenge to Smith in 2006, and he broadly hinted that a countywide run was on his mind in introducing this bill. He said that he is "not yet" in a position to decide where school construction funding should be used -- a role reserved for the executive -- and that he was "not trying to see things with a parochial vision" in drafting a measure that would appeal to voters countywide.

His proposal has sparked interest from other council members. Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said he has offered suggestions to Bartenfelder, and Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he has signed on as a co-sponsor.

"We have all been dealing with overcrowded schools," Moxley said. "I think by introducing this bill and moving forward with it, folks are going to have to make the difficult decisions."

Kamenetz said he has asked the auditor to determine the impact of the bill. The county needs to do something about crowding, he said, and this bill represents a partial solution.

"Part of the problem is, you can start denying the building permits, but the second part of the equation has to be, where do we find the additional funds to reduce overcrowding at schools that have reached capacity?" Kamenetz said.

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