The last time a wave of students swept through the county, it resulted in the construction of 15 schools. But after the wave had washed through, there were a lot of empty classrooms.
Whether any of that space can be used to house the more than 9,200 new students expected by 1996 will be among the questions asked by a commission on school construction County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann plans to appoint nextweek.
The citizen panel will be charged with examining cheaper ways to handle the new students than the $108 million expansion program embraced July 8 by the Board of Education.
The board's six-year plan includes 15 new schools to cope with a 29 percent jump in student population, from 31,500 to 40,716, by the 1996-1997 school year.
Harford County Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson supports Rehrmann's planned commission, saying it's time for the county to take more direct responsibility for school construction plans.
The county and state are committed to building a middle school and three elementary schools by 1994.
Wilson warns that taxpayers will not want to overbuild simply to accommodate a temporary surge in students.
"What happensafter the peak?" he asked. "Are the demographics going to indicate more schools, or will it trail off?"
The county followed the latterpattern in the late 1970s, when it faced its last surge in student population.
As the county approached a peak of 34,000 students in the public school system in 1976, it embarked on a program to build 15schools. The 14-year expansion ended in 1984 with the opening of BelAir Elementary School.
By the time the last class graduated in 1983 after the system reached its peak, the county had three empty elementary schools and an abandoned high school on its hands.
Once they were declared surplus, ownership reverted to the county government.
But the county is not in a position to renovate the abandoned schools to make room for the new generation of students.
"We're not looking at reconverting schools," school spokesman Albert Seymour said. "A lot of these schools have asbestos and are so old that it would not be cost-effective."
Others have tenants who would be next to impossible to displace.
Part of the old Edgewood elementary school off Cedar Drive, which was shut down for lack of students in 1981, has been occupied since 1983 by the Edgewood Multi-Purpose Youth Center.
The rest of the building has been used for school storage space and would be available to the board for classrooms if a military expansion caused a rise in students connected to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The council also has approved $10,000 in planning money to determine whether the building could be used for senior housing and a community center.
The old Aberdeen high school is now home to county Department of Parks and Recreation offices, the Historical Society and county storage space.
Similarly, two old northern county schools have been turned over for other community uses.
When he was president of the Highland Community Association, Wilson led a successful effort to have an abandoned elementary school turned over to the association. It now houses the group's community center, a county library branch, post office, day-care center and senior center.
"I think thecommunity would be owed something for all they put into it," Wilson said. "It would mean displacing a whole constellation of services."
The last surplus school, Slate Ridge Elementary, was sold to a private buyer who is renovating the building for rental housing.