Although Howard County will, for the second consecutive year, have no elementary or middle schools crowded enough to trigger development delays under county growth-control laws, there are problems on the horizon, according to the annual enrollment charts submitted to the County Council.
The charts show again a sharp departure from the decade's start, when large swaths of the county were closed to development because of crowding under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. The law delays development around schools with projected enrollments over 115 percent of building capacity three years into the future.
While the housing slump is leaving fewer students in newly built western county schools, enrollments are slowly creeping higher in some Elkridge-Ellicott City schools, especially at Bellows Spring Elementary in Ellicott City.
Some officials say they worry that the county won't have enough money to renovate older schools and build new classrooms and other public facilities, such as community centers, larger libraries and fire stations, to keep pace with growth.
That's a point County Council Chairman Courtney Watson strove to make in a council work session discussion Tuesday on a bill intended to speed up some revitalization projects along the U.S. 1 corridor.
"If we have a revenue source to fund schools, it's another ball game," Watson said. But there is no new revenue source, and she stressed that the county is straining now to pay for school projects. At the same time, she said school officials undercounted enrollment at Elkridge Elementary this school year by 75 students, reviving the Ellicott City Democrat's fear of school crowding. Construction is to begin this fiscal year on a 125-seat addition and renovations at Elkridge Elementary.
"We don't want to repeat Pointer's Run Elementary school," Watson said, referring to crowding early in the decade at the Clarksville school because of inaccurate enrollment projections.
Bellows Spring Elementary in Ellicott City is facing enrollment of 122 percent of capacity by August 2014, while enrollment at two-year-old Dayton Oaks Elementary in the western county is predicted to be 70 percent of building capacity that same year. The new, larger Bushy Park Elementary is projected to be at 80 percent of capacity that year, while Lisbon Elementary would be at 76 percent.
"I'll give you one word: price," said Pat Hiban, a county real estate agent, on the lack of children in western county schools.
Hiban said that large detached homes in the western county comprise 17 percent of those listed for sale but just 2 percent of sales. New homes start at $1 million, he said, and there are few takers.
With new townhouses selling for less than $400,000 in the U.S. 1 corridor, more families with children are buying there, county officials said.
"A lot of families can't afford what they'd like" in a new home, said county planning director Marsha McLaughlin, but "the jury is out" on how many students the U.S. 1 homes will produce.
Joel Gallihue, school planning manager, said that since developments such as Elkridge Crossing, Belmont Station and Village Towns along U.S. 1 are new, the school system has no history on them. Bellows Spring is due to receive three more portable classrooms next year, he said, bringing the total there to six.
Gallihue told the council that the school system is searching for school sites along U.S.1, and expects the county to need one or two new elementary schools and maybe a middle school along the corridor starting about 2017. The adequate-facilities law does not cover high schools.
The enrollment charts, which must be voted on each year by the County Council, make projections three years out to give the county time to fix problems, either by moving school district boundaries or by building more classrooms. Ilchester Elementary, also in the northeast, is predicted to have room for more students in 2014, when Bellows Spring is facing crowding.
Slower-than-expected development of hundreds of new homes at Turf Valley in western Ellicott City might lessen the need for a new middle school there, Gallihue said.
A two-phase project to add 225 seats at Waverly Elementary, intended to relieve crowding at Manor Woods, is now scheduled to begin in fiscal 2010. Construction of the new middle school, intended to help crowded Mount View Middle, is scheduled to begin in fiscal 2012.