Maryland's public schools will have to absorb an extra 140,000 students this decade, a 20 percent increase, according to projections released yesterday by the state planning office.
After a decade of general declines in public school enrollment, the new swell of students promises a frenzy of school construction that will strain already tight budgets and make tax increases more likely -- if not inevitable.
"I think there's going to have to be a reassessment by both the county and the state on school construction funding," said Michael E. Hickey, superintendent of Howard County schools where state projections predict the biggest enrollment increase in Maryland -- 52 percent by the year 2000.
Overall enrollment in the state is expected to rise from 700,816 in 1990 to 840,790 by 2000.
"One thing is for sure, the kids are here," said Jim Kraft, who is in charge of planning for the 89,000-student Baltimore County school district. Enrollment there is expected to grow by 23 percent this decade.
The overflow of children has been channeled into 156 portable classrooms and, in one instance, a church.
"The problem's not going to go away. Somebody's going to have to address it." Mr. Kraft said.
State officials are working on a price tag for school construction over the next decade, but no figures are available as yet, said Yale Stenzler, executive director of the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction.
An average elementary school for 600 students costs about $6 million, while a high school for 1,400 students costs about $18 million, he said.
The increase in enrollment mirrors national trends. In Maryland, the numbers represent families who have moved into the state, a birth rate that only recently leveled off, and the maturing of a baby boomlet that packed elementary schools last decade and is now moving into the secondary grades, said John Kozarski, research statistician with the state office of planning.
The figures also reflect a growing number of parents who are opting for public schools -- probably for financial reasons, he said. The state's mandatory kindergarten law, which takes effect next year, is expected to draw even more students into public schools.
Some counties, where enrollment had declined, will have to reopen closed schools or build new ones. Other counties -- most notably Howard, Frederick, Calvert and Carroll -- have been coping with growing enrollment for years.
Only three jurisdictions are expected to post declines in enrollment for the decade: Baltimore, Allegany County and Somerset County. For most of Maryland, the 90s will bring schools that are bursting at the seams.
"Portable classrooms are something we're going to have to live with throughout the 1990s," said Kathleen Sanner, assistant for school facilities in Carroll County, which has 22,400 students.
"We've got facilities that have as many as 10 portable classrooms sitting outside them right now," she said.
The projections are no surprise to school officials, who do their own forecasts annually and have school construction plans prepared. The trouble is coming up with enough local and state dollars to pay for those buildings.
In Howard County, which has 31,310 students, only two schools are below capacity, Dr. Hickey said. The county has 45 portable classrooms, opened two new schools this year and hopes to open nine more by 1995.
In Baltimore County, voters approved $39.9 million in school construction bonds in 1990 -- the largest bond issue in the county's history. But the county had to buy more portable classrooms than any time since the postwar baby boom to handle the overflow this year, says superintendent Robert Y. Dubel.
And school officials expect to need 14 new schools through 1998, at a cost of $280 million. So far, they have only $18 million of that money.
"It's absolutely predictable, but it's been absolutely impossible for us to keep up," Dr. Dubel said.
Superintendents are more worried than ever since last week when Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the state might provide no money at all for school construction next year.
A spokeswoman for the governor said Mr. Schaefer's statement was intended to draw attention to "difficult choices" ahead. It does not mean the state plans to pull out of the school construction business, said Page Boinest. This year the state provided $64.7 in school construction. Local districts had requested $204.5 million.
But school officials accustomed to living with budget cuts sathe new pressures on schools can't be handled without new money -- meaning taxes. In Montgomery County, home of a tax revolt just a year ago, school board members yesterday approved a resolution calling for new state and local taxes to balance the budget and provide long-term funding for education.
"The choice is to either maintain the investment that's already been made or lose the gains that this county has prided itself on historically," said schools spokesman Brian J. Porter.
Rising school enrollment