Three Harford elementary school districts reach development moratorium status; fourth could follow

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Development moratoriums remain in place for the Emmorton and Magnolia elementary school districts, and a third district, Homestead-Wakefield Elementary, is likely to be under moratorium based on Harford County Public Schools enrollment figures for the current school year that were released recently.

A fourth elementary district, Red Pump, which is north of Bel Air, is also getting close to the 110 percent enrollment to capacity threshold that triggers a ban on new housing construction in an individual school district under the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

The county can impose a moratorium on residential development in a school district if enrollment is at 110 percent of its state-rated capacity, or will hit 110 percent of capacity in three years. The numbers are based on the annual enrollment taken on Sept. 30, several weeks after the start of each school year.

None of the county’s other 30 elementary districts is close to the moratorium trigger, nor are any of the high or middle schools, according to the new enrollment figures.

Enrollment at Harford Technical High School, a countywide magnet school, is at 110 percent of capacity, a persistent issue because of the school’s popularity, but because it draws students from all over the county, it does not figure into the APFO requirements which are designed to keep individual schools from being overcrowded by new development.

Overall, the Harford school system saw a net gain of 223 students this year over 2017, with total enrollment growing to 37,828 students from 37,605 in 2017, according to the latest figures.

This was the second successive annual gain after years of steady declines. Total enrollment increased by 163 students between 2016 and 2017. In September 2010, HCPS had 38,394 total students, or 556 more students than this year. As enrollment declined annually starting in the mid-2000s, Frederick County Public Schools passed Harford in total enrollment as the state’s seventh largest district.

Moratorium districts

According to the new enrollment figures, Magnolia Elementary, which serves an area between Joppatowne and the west side of Edgewood, has 568 students with a capacity of 518, or 110 percent of students to capacity. The school has 32 more students this year compared to last.

Emmorton Elementary, off Wheel Road in the Bel Air South area, has 610 students enrolled with a capacity of 549, or 111 percent. The school gained three students this year.

Homestead-Wakefield, on the south end of the Bel Air High and Middle School campus, has 1,003 students enrolled with a capacity of 907, or 111 percent. This school had a net gain of 28 students this year.

Red Pump Elementary, north of Bel Air, has 753 students enrolled and a capacity of 696 students, or 108 percent. Red Pump had a net gain of 39 students this year.

The only other elementary schools where enrollment exceeds 100 percent of capacity are Bel Air Elementary and Churchville Elementary, both at 101 percent, according to the latest enrollment figures.

Among secondary schools, both Bel Air Middle and Patterson Mill Middle are at 104 percent. The Emmorton, Homestead-Wakefield and Red Pump elementary districts feed in to one or both of those middle schools. Other than Harford Tech, none of the other nine high schools’ enrollment exceeds 93 percent (Bel Air High).

Review panel

Preliminary enrollment figures for the current school year were reviewed by the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board on Nov. 13. The board is made up of school system and county government representatives and meets twice a year in the spring and fall to look at development and school enrollment trends in an effort to identify potential overcrowding trends.

The advisory board meeting was the last for its chairman, outgoing County Council President Richard Slutzky, who is leaving the council Monday after 16 years, the last four as president. He also served 12 years as the District E representative serving Aberdeen, Churchville and the east Bel Air suburbs.

The former Aberdeen High School coach and teacher has been the council liaison to the public schools since he was elected to his first term in 2002. He has been instrumental in making the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance more responsive to addressing potential school overcrowding.

In a later interview Slutzky recalled the new schools that have been built, or existing schools that had major upgrades or replacements, in the past 16 years.

He said county leaders had to alleviate overcrowding, with many students attending class in trailers, while HCPS was losing students overall.

“[We] were losing literally hundreds and hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of students a year,” Slutzky said.

The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance was put in place to force school and county officials to address the need to redistrict students away from crowded schools before resorting to the expensive construction of new schools, such as happened in the mid-2000s when Patterson Mill High and Middle were built to alleviate overcrowding of other Bel Air area secondary schools and Red Pump was built to alleviate overcrowding at several Bel Air area elementary schools.

Despite having four schools that are considered overcrowded by county legal standards, overall the school system continues to operate at about 85 percent of total building capacity, a figure that has been consistent for the past five years.

This school year, Harford schools have a total state-rated capacity for 44,404 students, the equivalent of more than 6,500 empty seats. According to the latest enrollment figures, the elementary schools are operating at 90 percent of capacity, the middle schools at 83 percent and the high schools at 81 percent.

At the APF board meeting in May, a Homestead-Wakefield parent complained about the crowded conditions at that school, one which HCPS officials have considered for replacement in the past – the Wakefield building is one of the county’s oldest; however, no funding has been forthcoming for a new school in the face of other priorities.

One of those priorities was the rebuild of Youth’s Benefit Elementary in Fallston, which was finished last fall and has some additional capacity over the old school. YBES has 1,017 students versus a capacity of 1,120 and is operating at 91 percent, according to the 2018 enrollment figures.

Other Bel Air area elementary schools and their operating capacity are Hickory, 97 percent; Forest Lakes, 78 percent; Forest Hill, 89 percent; Ring Factory, 94 percent; Prospect Mill, 83 percent; and Fountain Green, 87 percent.

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