Surge foreseen in enrollments at Md. schools Growth threatens to outstrip revenue from property taxes

September 19, 1990|By Will Englund

After nearly two decades of declining numbers, Maryland public school enrollment will go nowhere but up between now and the turn of the century, state planners predicted in figures made public yesterday.

They believe that school enrollment statewide will increase 18.3 percent in the coming decade -- more than twice the projected national average -- putting school construction once more into the forefront of educational issues.

"We are back in the business of building schools," James E. Kraft, the manager for planning for the Baltimore County schools, said yesterday. But at the same time, paying for those schools is likely to put more strain on the property tax in counties where the growth in enrollment outstrips the growth in revenues.

"The property tax is an old-fashioned way of paying for schools," said Richard Bavaria, a spokesman for the Baltimore County system.

"There are going to have to be creative ways to raise resources. Schools cost money."

The state forsees the highest increase in outer suburban areas -- mostly around Washington -- where there is still much undeveloped land and families are moving in partly because good schools already exist. For instance, the state foresees explosive growth in Howard County, with school enrollment leaping by 49.2 percent.

Regionally, the forecasters predict the most growth in Southern Maryland, the Washington suburbs and the Upper Eastern Shore. Even including Howard County's growth, the Baltimore region is expected to grow at below the statewide rate, largely because the projections show Baltimore itself gaining some students by mid-decade but then falling back again by 1999 to its present level of enrollment.

However, Baltimore County's Mr. Kraft sharply disputes the state's projections and said that the county's growth in enrollment could be on a par with Howard's.

Western Maryland shows the least growth in the state, with Allegany and Garrett counties losing students, according to planners.

The state's predictions show the effect of the "mini" baby boom, with most counties having their sharpest growth in the first half of the 1990s and then leveling off.

Only the outer suburban areas buck that trend. Howard, Frederick, Charles and Queen Anne's counties are expected to keep growing through the decade.

Dennis McGee of the state planning office said the projections are based on current trends.

The state looks at the actual number of births in each school district and at kindergarten enrollment five years later, at the existing patterns of increase or decrease from grade to grade, and at in-migration figures, as well as recent birth rates. He acknowledged that the projections tend to be conservative, and they do not try to predict major changes in the state's economy.

"If there's a major explosion of growth," he said, "these projections are out the window."

Still, the 18.3 percent predicted increase is more than double the percent growth that the U.S. Department of Education expects for the nation as a whole.

"Births are up, all over Maryland," said Mr. McGee. "And every time you get an increase in students, you get an increase in everything else: more schools, more teachers, more custodians, more buses, a bigger gasoline budget."

Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent for planning in Howard County, said the school system's capital budget should include enough money to keep up with

growth at least through 1997. That budget goes to the County Council this fall; he noted that the council has been "very supportive" of new school construction in the past.

But growth also puts a squeeze on the number of programs the system can offer, he said.

An increase in students requires an expanded budget just to keep the current programs going. The result, he said, is that "we have fewer dollars for new programs. That's the trap we get caught in."

RTC In the 1970s the state committed itself to paying for 90 percent of new school construction, but that proportion has steadily slipped until it now stands at between 50 percent and 75 percent, depending on the wealth of the school district. Yale Stenzler, executive director of the state's Interagency Committee for Public School Construction, said that school systems across Maryland have already shifted their emphasis from renovating to constructing new schools.

Assuming that the state is not able to step up its spending again, finding money for new schools could require some "creative" financing in Baltimore County and other districts that do not experience a concurrent increase in tax revenues, school officials said. Mr. Kraft, in disagreeing with the state's projection for Baltimore County, said he believes the county will join Howard in having a major expansion of enrollment. He predicts the county schools will grow by 33,000 students, to a total of 117,000, with most of the growth in Perry Hall, White Marsh and Owings Mills. He said the county bases its prediction on a much greater birth rate than the state expects for the coming decade.

"But the difficulty is that the kids are not even born yet," he said. "When you're talking about the year 2000, a lot of things can happen in 10 years."

Baltimore County, which had 134,000 students in 1971 and only 81,000 in 1986, was right to close as many schools as it did in that time, he said. The operating savings over 20 years have been substantial, he said, and, moreover, the growth has been in previously undeveloped parts of the county.

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