Schools await facilities strategy


Anne Arundel County schools may have avoided full-scale redistricting this year, but officials hope that a top-to-bottom look at how the system uses its schools and other buildings will help them keep up with enrollment changes and plan new construction.

The facilities utilization study, ordered by the school board last week, will produce an inventory of existing school buildings, maintenance facilities and office space, and detail what needs to be done in the decades ahead.

"It's basically the road map of where we are today, where do we want to get tomorrow - and how do we get from today to tomorrow," said board President Edward P. Carey. "Given what we're hearing from the surrounding counties, it's time we started developing a long-term strategic plan."

He added that the facilities plan would have to be revisited yearly and would need to be flexible enough to incorporate advances in the field, such as new construction techniques or technology.

When preparing to forward the school system's capital budget to the state in October, several board members discussed the need to better use existing facilities, suggesting that redistricting might be the way to go.

But Carey said the facilities report will not be a call for full-scale redistricting, which can be disruptive. School system staff will report to the board when the inventory can be completed and whether it should be conducted internally or by an outside consultant.

Administrators face enrollment concerns in many corners of the county.

Although the school system estimates there are about 5,000 available seats in elementary schools and another 5,000 in middle schools, those seats are distributed throughout the county - not necessarily in places where the population is growing, said Chuck Yocum, supervisor of student demographic planning.

State early childhood mandates and changes at Fort Meade also affect school enrollments. In addition to the state's 2007 deadline to provide full-day kindergarten to all children, hundreds of military families are expected to cluster around Fort Meade by 2008 as part of the Army's Residential Communities Initiative.

There are concerns in high schools as well. Residents in Crofton have long called for a 13th high school to be built in their community, eliminating their children's trips to either Arundel High School in Gambrills or South River High School in Edgewater. There are no plans to build a high school.

Broadneck High School requires several portable classrooms to accommodate its programs, but planning officials have said that sending some of those students to other schools would create long bus rides.

In addition to dealing with enrollment patterns, the facilities document also will assist the board in making decisions about expanding alternative education and regional kindergarten centers, and creating magnet high schools.

"At the end of the study, we should have a fantastic picture of our system," Yocum said.

But Crofton resident Steve Donnelly, a school planning consultant, said that instead of creating a long-term report, school planning officials should change their facilities planning process. He said a facilities plan should be updated yearly and revised in conjunction with community groups.

"The real problem is that there is not enough staff and funding at the planning office to do within the master plan process ... the things that are critically needed by the Board of Education," Donnelly said.

Debbie Ritchie, president of the Council of PTAs, concurred with the need for community involvement to stave off potential community opposition.

"It's going to be a really tough situation because you're always going to have someone who's going to be changing in the middle," she said.

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