Howard County school officials have predicted for some time that pupil enrollment would peak by 2008 and then start falling off, a theory that has driven school and home construction decisions.
But no more.
A new "plateau theory" has taken hold at school board headquarters, and it's winning confidence among often-skeptical county officials, parents and school board members trying to plan how many additional classrooms will be needed.
David C. Drown, manager of school planning, said he believes school enrollments will continue climbing -- but at a slow pace, reaching a plateau of about 50,700 children by 2010. Enrollment should stay around that level for the foreseeable future.
"We don't show anything showing a decrease in enrollment," Drown told the county's Spending Affordability Committee at a meeting last week. Families move to Howard County to take advantage of the good schools, he said.
"We believe we will show a stabilized population. We think the dynamics may have changed," he told the group, which convenes each year to recommend bond borrowing levels -- mainly for school construction -- for the county's next budget year.
The projections are important because they provide a basis for school construction planning, and they can also trigger the county's Adequate Public Facilities Law, delaying development planned around schools where crowding is predicted.
The new plateau theory is finding a more receptive audience than the old concept, from officials like County Executive James N. Robey to community leaders like Hollifield Station Elementary PTA President Linda Dombrowski.
"I think they've made significant improvements in their projections. I'm more confident in what we're getting from them," Robey said. But the executive said he worries that new program changes -- such as class-size reductions and all-day kindergarten -- could again worsen the space crunch.
School board Chairman Courtney Watson, who began lobbying for more classrooms as a worried parent years ago, said she has more faith in the plateau theory now. She added, however, that "we really don't know the impact of the sharp increase in housing prices," which makes board members "a little nervous."
Dombrowski's neighborhood elementary school holds 777 children this year -- compared with a capacity of 578 -- and is still growing. "You have to give them [school officials] credit for recognizing the change in the landscape," she said. But she added that she worries redevelopment of U.S. 1 or other projects could change the predictions.
Other officials are more doubtful.
"We've seen the plateau over the last 10 to 20 years. It's never been real," said the county's budget director, Raymond S. Wacks, who convened the committee.
"Enrollment projections are clearly an art, not a science. There are just too many factors," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.
"It's a guessing game. It's always been a guessing game," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.
The doubts are based on painful experience.
When Robey, Guzzone and Merdon first took office in December 1998, some questioned the need for the county's 11th high school, Reservoir Hill. Former County Executive Charles I. Ecker had resisted building both the high school and a new northeast elementary school. His argument was that because predictions showed an eventual enrollment decline, expensive new buildings could stand empty after just a few years of use.
Robey ended up building two new high schools, and a second new northeast elementary is to open in 2007. In crowded Clarksville, Pointers Run Elementary parents took a house-by-house head count to prove that school officials had badly undercounted children there, which led to reforms in making more complete enrollment predictions.
At the spending committee meeting, Raymond Brown, chief operating officer of county schools, said current building plans -- which include a new western middle school by 2011 -- still won't provide enough seats for every student, falling about 800 seats short by 2010.
Drown said several new factors lend credence to the new theory.
One is that actual school enrollments counted on Sept. 30 each year have been hundreds of children lower than predicted for the last several years.
Another is that detached single-family homes in places like Emerson, the large mixed-use development going up in the southeastern part of the county, are producing fewer children per house than in past years.
"The pace of growth is slowing to the point where we're seeing it in the school system's enrollment," Drown said.
This school year, for example, 200 fewer children were counted on Sept. 30 than were predicted, and the drop came mainly from elementary schools. Last year, there were 400 fewer children counted than predictions showed.
In Emerson, new detached homes are producing, on average, fewer than half the elementary-age children as older ones in the Pointers Run school district, Drown said. That may be because of higher prices (around $700,000) at Emerson, Drown said.
"Single-family homes may not be something young families can afford," he said.