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School options are discussed

The Baltimore Sun

The planned urbanization of central Columbia may eventually require a new elementary school, county school officials say. But a more pressing worry is crowded classrooms along the redeveloping U.S. 1 corridor.

Joel Gallihue, manager of school planning, told the County Council and school board recently that apartments and condominiums like those planned by General Growth Properties for Town Center produce more school-age children than they did a generation ago.

Although the economy is slowing, housing will come once land-use approvals are granted, Gallihue said. Using a formula of 0.119 students per housing unit, a 500-seat school might be needed by 2018, if the request is approved and the construction goes according to schedule, he said.

Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who represents Town Center, was skeptical that a new school would be needed so soon. But she said the county should plan for a different kind of school building.

"A potential new school is going to have to fit into a much more urban model," she said.

Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, noted that GGP's plan, which calls for 5,500 new residential units over three decades, has just been submitted to the county and approval is a long way off.

Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager and General Growth's point man on the 30-year Town Center project, generally played down the potential for more students. Later, he said he is skeptical of Gallihue's formula, but he said General Growth is having a consultant study the issue.

If another school is needed, he has said, the county could reopen the old Faulkner Ridge school in Wilde Lake. Sigaty suggested an addition at Bryant Woods Elementary as another option.

But Gallihue said the Faulkner Ridge building is used for staff development and training - a much more important function since the federal No Child Left Behind law took effect.

The more immediate problem is growing congestion in schools that serve the U.S. 1 corridor, he said.

An enrollment chart based on Sept. 30 figures shows Bellows Spring and Elkridge elementary schools are over the county's legal threshold for crowding of 115 percent of capacity. Under county law, development is delayed around elementary and middle schools that reach 115 percent or higher. The school board considers redistricting once crowding reaches 110 percent.

Bellows Spring is at 118 percent, while Elkridge is at 124 percent. Forest Ridge Elementary, farther south along the same corridor, is at 113 percent, and Patuxent Valley Middle is at 112 percent.

Plans call for a 150-seat addition to Elkridge Elementary to be built next summer, and the board is asking for money for a 100-seat addition for Bellows Spring the following year. Redistricting is expected for the school year starting August 2010, but that will focus mainly on high schools, officials said.

This year, Howard High, which also serves the U.S. 1 corridor, and Reservoir High are more than 113 percent of capacity, though the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance does not apply to high schools. Overall enrollment is 48,820 students.

The county is offering developers in the corridor quicker county approvals if they donate land for public facilities such as schools, libraries or fire stations. School officials are studying the possibility of building a less traditional suburban school on a smaller plot of land.

"If we have to fit a building into a small site, we want to make sure it's a concept Howard County wants," Gallihue said.

Schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the building must work in terms of size and price, and it must work for teachers and others who use the building.

In addition to crowding, school officials are also dealing with pending state budget cuts that would cost the Howard system $1.46 million.

Ray Brown, chief financial officer, said he and others are working on options for absorbing that reduction in the current academic year. He said the schools are using energy-saving programs for things such as school lighting, plowing the money saved on electricity and maintenance into more projects. In addition, Cousin said, the schools and county government are pooling resources to cut other costs - including combining grounds maintenance efforts with the Department of Recreation and Parks, where school grounds border county parks and heating-and-cooling maintenance, which are the same for schools and other county buildings.

"There's a big list of possible economies and efficiencies we can achieve if we give up turf," Cousin said.

The bigger worry, Brown said, is if the state shifts teacher pension costs to the county. That would add a $45 million burden next year.

Cousin said the state could begin shifting that cost gradually, however, by having local governments pay for the annual increase in pensions, which would be about $3.5 million for Howard County.

But over time, that financial burden grows. Social Security costs for teachers were shifted from state to county governments in 1992, Cousin said, when the annual cost was $7 million. Now that item costs $20 million.

"We can live with one year," he said. "It's much more difficult in the future."

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