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A simple equation [Editorial]

The Aegis

Last November, we pointed out that some areas of Harford County were starting to grow again in population, in particular Fallston, greater Bel Air and Emmorton/Bel Air South, where new housing construction has begun to rebound at a faster rate than what we saw just five years earlier.

At that time, the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board had just concluded its semi-annual meeting, which occurred following the release of the public school system’s annual enrollment report showing a gain of more than 350 students from the prior year, the largest such increase in 15 years.

“Anyone who drives around the Bel Air area, Fallston, Forest Hill and Emmorton in particular, sees houses and apartment buildings going up in increasing numbers,” we wrote. “People are starting to move into Harford County again. While no one can predict population growth with any certainty, it’s more likely to continue moving upward, as will enrollment in the public school system.”

When it next met in May, the APF board announced that two elementary districts, Emmorton and Magnolia, the latter on the east side of Joppatowne and another area where there has been a spurt in residential development, had reached homebuilding moratorium status because the schools’ enrollment had risen to 110 percent of their capacity.

Riding around some of these high growth areas during the first week of the new school year last week reinforced our belief that more and more children will be coming into local schools in the foreseeable future, and more overcrowding will result. Some places, like Hamilton Reserve in Fallston, barely existed a year ago, and now they have dozens of children waiting for school buses in the morning.

What we said last fall still goes: County and school officials had some eight years of negligible growth to figure out how to manage their facilities, some of which were woefully underutilized and likely to remain so, in order to accommodate the coming pickup in residential construction.

In the early 2000s, before the bottom fell out of the homebuilding business locally and across the United States, the greater Bel Air area and the Route 24 corridor to the south were experiencing acute school overcrowding, particularly at the secondary school level. Attempts by school officials to redistrict students out of the most crowded schools to others less crowded touched off the typical backlash from parents, which in turn caused the politicians to get involved.

The solution to ward off an impending political crisis was to build Patterson Mill Middle and High School. Whether that or the financial crisis that arrived soon afterward solved the overcrowding problem is a chicken/egg question. What we can say, however, is the oft-quoted analogy of those times, that enrollment was like a balloon – push kids toward one school and the balloon will bulge out the other side – hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that the politically expedient reaction of building a new school or schools to resist redistricting – when empty seats in other schools total some 15 to 20 percent of total system capacity – probably can’t be pulled off again in this or any other Maryland county, given the parsimony of state funding for new schools.

Thus, another friendly reminder that school and elected officials need to do some serious planning, with the latter group being more cognizant that growth has its limits. More houses = more kids = more crowded schools is an equation that hasn’t changed, just like the balloon analogy.

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