Impact fees suggested for Baltimore County to help build schools

June 06, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien and Sandra Crockett | Dennis O'Brien and Sandra Crockett,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

So many children will come to Baltimore County schools in the next eight years that the county will need to spend $246 million on new schools and should consider imposing impact fees on developers to help foot the bill, a consultant's report says.

The report by Tischler & Associates Inc. of Bethesda also says that the county should study other means to deal with the surge in enrollment, such as larger class sizes and extensive use of portable classrooms.

The report, released yesterday, notes that by 2000, the number of students in county schools will exceed 120,000. Current enrollment is more than 87,000 students, and about 4,000 new students a year are expected for years to come.

That would force the county to build at least one new middle school and seven new high schools over the next eight years, and the report says the county should consider making developers "share the cost" through impact fees.

In some jurisdictions, among them Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, developers pay an impact fee for each new housing unit they build to cover costs associated with the new roads, schools or sewer lines built to serve their subdivisions.

Another option would be to make extensive use of relocatable classrooms, instead of building new schools, which "could lower construction costs from $246 million to $21 million," the report says.

The school system also could save between $43 million and $69 million in construction cost by increasing the average class size from 24 to 26, as it was in county schools as recently as 1980.

The $50,000 report was commissioned by the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce after the County Council voted last August to impose a building moratorium. The moratorium banned construction of homes in communities served by eight elementary schools that are at least 20 percent over capacity.

The ban is expected to be extended to nine additional school districts next fall.

"These restrictions have been a matter of concern for the business community, which views long-term economic health for the county as depending on continuing growth at a reasonable pace," the report says.

The report recommends setting up a task force made up of members of the Parent-Teacher Association, representatives of businesses and community groups, and school and county government officials.

The county's top education official sharply criticized the report.

Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel called the proposal to increase class sizes "totally unrealistic" and said the consultant should also have considered the enormous maintenance costs that are facing the schools along with new construction.

"We're not going to work out a capital budget that allows for increase in class sizes," he said. "But the biggest disappointment is that this does not address the maintenance and modernization efforts we face. We have some buildings that go back to before World War II."

Both Rosalie Hellman, president of the school board, and Carmella Veit, head of the county PTA, joined Dr. Dubel in saying that they would be flatly opposed to increasing class sizes.

Yet the need for more schools has to be addressed, Mrs. Hellman agreed. "The impact fees could be an option," she said. Building different types of buildings, such as modular units, could be another one, she said.

Discussing class size is "an emotional issue," said Paul Tischler, one of the authors of the report. The purpose of the report was not to advocate solutions, he said.

"The assignment was to find out why are the schools overcrowded and the impact on the capital cost, the likely future needs of the school and the likely cost of addressing those needs," he said.

The report comes at a time when the state is cutting back on the money it gives local governments for school construction and in the wake of warnings from school officials about costs associated with impending enrollment increases.

"Our projections indicate the number is going to increase and the severe overcrowding is going to hit the middle schools and the high schools," said James E. Kraft, manager of planning for the county schools.

Mr. Kraft said that if anything, the overcrowded conditions are getting worse. When the County Council passed the moratorium Aug. 6, 29 schools were operating over capacity. Now, 39 schools are overcrowded.

Mr. Kraft said areas most drastically affected are in Perry Hall and northern Baltimore County, where portable classrooms have become a way of life. He said the county already is using 109 relocatable classrooms and plans to buy 43 more.

But he criticized the consultant's method of computing the cost savings, arguing that in cases of severe overcrowding relocatable classrooms are insufficient because students must still have access to gymnasiums, cafeterias, lavatories, art, music and special education facilities.

"To me, it's an oversimplification to say OK, you need 10,000 seats, it'll cost you this amount if you do it with new construction and this amount if you do it with portables. There are too many other factors," he said.

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