Growing pains of schools

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's newest high school, Marriotts Ridge, overlooks Old Frederick Road, an increasingly busy stretch of two-lane blacktop where former farm fields are sprouting McMansions. The two-year-old school is not only a symptom, some would say, but also an enabler of the suburban sprawl that continues to chew up Maryland's countryside.

The $34 million school, with its skylight atrium, is about 10,000 square feet larger than the last high school the county built five years ago. Its 32-acre campus is also too far away for many of its students to walk there, even if they wanted to.

"We're not living within a walkable community anymore," laments Mary Catherine Cochran of Ellicott City. Her youngest daughter faces a seven-mile ride by bus or car to class when she starts at Marriotts Ridge in August.

Long-distance commutes to class have become more common in the Baltimore suburbs, as the schools built there over the years have grown larger and more remote from the neighborhoods they serve.

Now, as Gov. Martin O'Malley pushes for a record $400 million in state spending to build, expand and renovate schools across Maryland, some are questioning whether school construction policies and practices are undermining the state's decade-old fight against sprawl.

"Why are so many of our schools being built out in cornfields where nobody can walk to them?" asks Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group that advocates compact development.

She and other critics say local and state officials are still building too many "megaschools out in the middle of nowhere," which aggravate traffic, air pollution and childhood obesity. Sprawling, distant schools also weaken the role the facilities could play as community centers, they argue, while costing taxpayers as busing budgets balloon.

School construction is not covered by Maryland's 1997 Smart Growth law, which limits state spending on roads, utilities and the like to existing towns and cities, or to other areas designated for growth, usually already served by public water and sewer.

Baltimore City, with dwindling enrollments, has been grappling with parents over closing neighborhood schools to save money.

Elsewhere, however, officials are pressed to keep up with growing enrollments, as the latest census figures show the state's population growing most in exurban and rural counties. Ebb Valley Elementary School, which is under construction on the outskirts of Manchester, is Carroll County's 15th new school in 17 years.

The state covers half or more of the costs of school construction, with local governments paying the rest. Most of the state funds go for renovating, adding to or replacing existing buildings, according to an analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning. But seven of 28 new schools approved statewide in the past six years are outside of areas designated by local and state governments for residential growth. In the Baltimore area, the ratio is even higher: four in 12.

David G. Lever, the state Department of Education's executive director of school construction, said that state officials do weigh a school's location in deciding whether to fund impriovements, along with the building's age, how overcrowded it is and what special educational needs the facility has.

"We take account of that, but it's not the overriding factor," he said of Smart Growth consideration.

Indeed, until asked recently by The Sun, state officials could not say how many school construction projects had been funded inside designated growth areas, and how many outside.

But Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said that with the O'Malley administration's commitment to Smart Growth, he intends to take a closer look at how and where state funds are spent on school construction.

"We realize that schools need to be where they need to be," he said, "but where possible, one of our jobs ... is to encourage a Smart Growth take on where schools are sited."

Local and state education officials say they have been forced to build schools outside of designated growth areas because they can't find the land they need within them. That is because the schools have grown in size, as have the grounds. Modern schools have to be bigger to house growing enrollments economically, they say, and to provide more parking and ball fields. Environmental regulations also contribute to schools' sprawl, they contend, by forcing a significant part of the site to be set aside for ponds and trees to curb polluted runoff.

"Our specifications for buildings changed," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools. "The amount of property we needed for schools increased."

Local officials point out that they are driven to build larger schools to economize, because neither they nor the state are able to pay for all the classroom space needed. Even this year's record $400 million proposed by O'Malley covers less than half what local officials asked for.

"Our problem is we would build a school on a piece of property, and within two years it was overcrowded," said Joseph P. Licata, assistant Harford County school superintendent for operations. When officials decided to increase the enrollment capacity of new schools in an attempt to get ahead of that growth, that meant building bigger. "Which means you need even more property," he pointed out.

But the building itself takes up only a fraction of the land on which it sits. At Vincent Farm Elementary, which is under construction in northeastern Baltimore County, the building will take up only 2.2 acres of the 27.6-acre site. Parking and driveways take up another 3.7 acres, ball fields, courts and playgrounds seven acres, with most of the rest set aside for a storm water collection pond and unbuildable woods, wetlands and floodplain.

The push to build bigger schools has often driven counties to locate them between the multiple communities they now serve, to even out bus or driving distances. But some parents complain that that robs their communities of easily accessible schools.

"The only available land is out in the middle of nowhere," said Rita Misra, mother of three in Mount Airy, which straddles the Carroll-Frederick county line. Two of her children are in an overcrowded middle school in town, she says, but when they are old enough, they'll have to ride a bus or be driven 11 miles each way to the nearest high school, South Carroll.

"They're not on public water," she said of some school sites. Of school planners, she said, "They're not in my opinion factoring in the costs of transportation or the benefits of having schools in communities."

But Ray Prokop, Carroll County's director of school facilities, said there aren't enough residents in Mount Airy for the ideal-sized high school of about 1,200 students. To build a smaller one might shortchange the students, he suggested, by reducing the pool of kids available to play varsity sports, participate in clubs and specialized classes.

Some contend that school officials' bigger-is-better mindset is fed at least in part by generic formulas or guidelines specifying minimum acreage for new facilities. Until a few years ago, the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, a professional group, recommended minimum acreage for new schools in its guide for school construction - a "bible" for many state and local school planners. "We no longer do that," said Art Gissendaner, the council's spokesman.

In Maryland, state education officials likewise say they do not have guidelines or minimum land requirements. However, Baltimore suburban school systems do, either as formal policies or informal goals. The minimums vary from county to county, with officials saying they look for anywhere from 10 to 25 acres, at least, on which to build an elementary school. 20 to 40 acres for a middle school, and 30 to 65 acres or more for a high school.

All said they had built schools at least occasionally on smaller sites than their guidelines or policies called for. Alex Szachnowicz, acting director of facilities in Anne Arundel County, said that some older schools there are on smaller tracts, five acres or even less.

However, he and other school officials also pointed out that they have sought out "campuses" of 60 to 80 or even 100 acres on which to build two or more schools together.

"In a way there are some economies of scale in buying one large piece of property and putting multiple buildings on it," Szachnowicz said.

In some cases, county school officials said, they have to acquire more land than even their guidelines call for because part of the site is unbuildable, with steep slopes or streams and wetlands on it.

"We may end up being forced to buy a site that's 40 acres for an elementary school, where we normally would need 15 to 20 usable acres, Harford's Licata said.

Such large tracts of land are hard to come by inside designated growth areas, county officials said, particularly when developers are bidding for the same sites.

The percentage of new schools being built outside of designated growth areas roughly mirrors that of new housing being developed - one-fourth to one-third. School officials say they need to serve that population, but also acknowledge that their facilities may stimulate development also.

"New schools seem to be like roads; they really do spur growth," said Stephen H. Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration for Carroll County schools. That's particularly true in areas where development is shut down by local "adequate facilities" laws because existing schools are overcrowded.

One factor driving the need for bigger school campuses is the demand for more parking.

In Howard County, school officials are seeking $1 million to expand parking at older elementary schools. At Running Brook in Columbia, for example, there can be as many as 100 teachers and staff in the building at one time, with only enough parking for 60 vehicles. Adding to the pavement needs: spaces for parent volunteers to park, holding lanes for parents dropping off or picking up their children, and service driveways for trucks bringing meals, since many schools no longer prepare food onsite.

"The old days of Ward Cleaver dropping the kids off at school, and the mother that's the teacher, and picking up all three of them on the way back home from work are long gone," said Don Dent, director of planning and support operations for Baltimore County schools. "Now we figure one parking space for every 10 students."

The number of children walking to school has dwindled over the years. In 1969, nearly half of the nation's schoolchildren commuted on foot, according to a federal survey. By 2001, that share had shrunk to less than 15 percent. Most figure it is smaller still today.

In Maryland, about 600,000 students get to and from school by bus, riding almost 120 million miles a year at a cost of $185 million, according to state Department of Education data. Baltimore suburbs report two-thirds to three-fourths of their students are eligible to ride the bus, under policies that provide transportation to children living beyond easy walking range - up to three-quarters of a mile for elementary pupils and a mile or more for high school students.

There's a price to be paid for students not walking to school. Perhaps a quarter of morning rush-hour traffic is school-related, according to David Parisi, a private transportation engineer in California. An Environmental Protection Agency study four years ago estimated that the amount of air pollution generated around a school is roughly twice as much at a school where every student is driven, compared with a similar-sized one where 15 percent still walk.

One such school with almost no walkers is Dogwood Elementary School. It opened six years ago in an area of western Baltimore County targeted for development, but before many houses had been put in, or any sidewalks, Dent said. With no easy way to walk there, school officials offer bus service to all 600 students, though many are ferried there by their parents.

Another cost of the shift away from walking may be to children's health, some say. Lack of physical activity is contributing to more young people being overweight or even obese, according to health officials.

But school officials say they often add land around schools for ball fields and tennis courts to provide recreational opportunities for the community, and they are heavily used after school hours. Officials also say school location plays a minor role, at best, in childhood obesity.

"Drive down any street on any given day," said Harford's Licata. "How many kids do you see out throwing a ball around in the street? I can't change that. Their parents have to change that attitude."

Richard D. Otis, a deputy associate administrator at the EPA, who oversees its Smart Growth program, said, "The issue isn't necessarily so much how you site the schools, but the surrounding development pattern of the community itself. If you have a fairly low- density community of wide streets, cul-de-sacs and feeder roads and so on ... it doesn't really matter where you site the school because people aren't going to be walking anyway."

EPA officials, though, say a school's distance from the community it serves does matter. In a 2004 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents cited distance to school as the principal barrier to their children walking to or from school.

One factor that may stop some of the school sprawl may be the increasing scarcity of convenient large tracts. Already, this is forcing some schools onto smaller plots, and to build upward - often two or three stories.

The added cost of providing water and waste treatment to remote sites is also a factor.

"It is becoming prohibitively expensive to build, water and wastewater treatment plants outside the public sewer area," said Howard's Ken Roey, who estimated that the county spent $5 million on that for the new $27 million Dayton Oaks Elementary School north of Clarksville.

But Harford's Licata said that as he searches for land for new schools, the tracts large enough to meet today's standards are increasingly outside of the county's growth envelope.

Schmidt-Perkins argued that greater effort needs to be made to see that state and local school construction funds are steered to projects in designated growth areas. Overcrowding in many of those schools is keeping development from going where it's planned, she said.

While public-school ennrollment statewide is expected to increase less than 2 percent over the next eight years - and should actually decline in the Baltimore region, largely because of projected drops in the city - growth in outlying areas will mean continuing public pressure to expand or add schools there.

"When you think what it takes to preserve a community, it's got to have good schools," Misra said.

Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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