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School capacity bill nears passage

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County Council is closer to passing a measure that would revamp the way school capacity is determined and could pave the way for more affordable housing development.

The proposed legislation that could have drastically affected how schools are filled and housing developments proceed has steadily softened under heavy criticism from parents, school system officials and developers.

Initial versions sought to raise the definition of "full" at elementary and secondary schools to 105 and 110 percent capacity, respectively. Existing formulas allow a cushion to be built into determining capacity, allowing secondary schools, for instance, to be considered full and closed off for development when they're 85 percent full.

Faced with accusations that the measure's sponsors were too developer-friendly and would worsen crowding in some schools, Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. conceded with an amendment that would tag schools as full at 100 percent capacity.

The measure, which brought about nearly two hours of testimony last week, is up for a second round of public review May 5. By then, Dillon said he expects his colleagues to reinstate the six-year wait for homebuilders to begin projects in crowded feeder systems.

The legislation he co-sponsored with Crownsville Democrat Jamie Benoit had initially proposed reducing the current wait time to three years, allowing developers to have their building plans reviewed in the interim, a common practice in other counties. But Dillon said some county administrators are worried that three years is too short and would strain the planning and zoning staff.

Dillon and Benoit say they are working to get a more realistic picture of capacity in the 74,000-student school system. They said it's hard for them to reconcile how some schools are crowded, while the district has 8,000 empty seats in schools in parts of North County and Pasadena. They're hoping their bill spurs the school system to consider widespread redistricting that equally spreads the student population across schools in every part of the county.

Developers and real estate agents at Monday's public hearing echoed those concerns.

"Don't tax me to build a new school because Johnny doesn't want to take the school bus five minutes down the road [to an empty school]," said John Pantelides, a developer and head of the Anne Arundel County Alliance for Fair Land Use. Later, he added the school board "needs to have the courage to do what's right and do some real redistricting so that you don't have some schools crowded and other schools half empty."

The school board's reluctance to do so amid fears of a public outcry, Pantelides said, has allowed schools to be considered artificially crowded and has closed off 60 percent of the county to affordable housing development.

"So, what developers are left with is either building high-end housing, $800,000, $900,000 homes, or elderly housing communities," he said.

Having a more reliable handle on capacity, Dillon and Benoit say, could also help the county effectively lobby for tens of millions of dollars more in state aid for new school construction and renovation.

Having a longer list of capital building projects, however, won't necessarily guarantee state funding. Last year, the state's 24 school districts asked for more than $900 million for new construction and renovation projects but received only $333 million.

Benoit countered that other counties, including Howard, that calculate capacity more tightly and redistrict more aggressively get more of the money they're seeking.

"I think it's fair to say on some level that Anne Arundel County is being punished because we don't calculate our capacity right," he said.

The Benoit-Dillon measure seeks to also stamp out another faulty practice: the district's method of counting transfer students twice, at the school they attend and the one they left. That practice has unnecessarily limited development around schools that actually have space, Dillon said.

Anne Arundel schools demographer Chuck Yocum said he understands Dillon and Benoit's concerns for a more reliable measure of school capacity. Some of the state's most populated counties allow schools to reach up to 120 percent of their state-rated capacity before cutting off most homebuilding. Anne Arundel, meanwhile, imposes some of the most stringent restrictions on development.

At Freetown Elementary in Glen Burnie, for instance, 100 students who live in that neighborhood choose to attend other schools. Yet those students are counted in Freetown's enrollment, closing that community to homebuilding, Yocum said.

"The school on paper is closed and over capacity, when in fact capacity exists at the school," Yocum said. "Changing the [transfer student calculation] could open six or seven schools up to development."

That said, Yocum argued that the process of wholesale redistricting is one the school system cannot undertake lightly. The availability exists in schools in older communities in the county, like Linthicum, Brooklyn Park and Glen Burnie, Yocum said. Yet the demand for housing and the population boom are in West County, where no seats are available.

Yocum said the district can't undertake a drastic redistricting that would force students to be bused out of their neighborhoods to half-empty schools. It would boost transportation costs, cause mass dissatisfaction among parents and go against research that shows students perform better academically when they have neighborhood connections to a school, he said.

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