Harford's School Crunch

February 07, 1992

Growth in Harford County may have slowed a bit, but the recession has not put a damper on the pent-up demand for new schools.

Eight county elementary schools, one middle school and one high school now have enrollments that outstrip their capacity. Yet imagine what things will be like in another six years when the current enrollment of 30,962 is expected to jump by 32 percent to nearly 40,000.

This is not a problem just in rapidly growing Harford. It is felt in most metropolitan counties.

Even in Baltimore County, where overall population has remained relatively constant in recent years, internal movement has created uneven capacity situations: there may be enough schools but they are in the wrong places.

To ease Harford's school crunch, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann wants a 0.5 percent transfer tax, which would be imposed each time a piece of real estate is sold. This would generate $2.45 million annually, according to a blue-ribbon committee that initially proposed the idea.

We applaud Ms. Rehrmann for wanting to move forward on the ticklish school construction issue before it becomes an acute one. But we doubt that a local transfer tax is the way to go.

Such a tax might put the brakes on the strong growth Harford has experienced in recent decades. It could also endanger a concomitant growth in the county's economy and in local job opportunities at a time when more numerous and better local jobs should be encouraged in Harford because its access roads to Baltimore County, Baltimore City and points south are becoming hopelessly clogged.

Ms. Rehrmann likes the local transfer tax for one simple reason: she hates to even think of the outcry the most obvious alternatives might produce. One of those alternatives is to change current school district lines. That would mean more kids spending more time on the bus every school day -- and plenty of angry parents.

The other alternative would be a higher property tax rate to finance schools. It would be politically unpopular but when needs increase, someone has to pay the bill.

Although we disagree with the local transfer tax proposal, the blue-ribbon committee headed by Raymond W. Hamm Jr. recommended several other measures that could streamline school construction and make it cheaper.

It suggested landbanking sites near growth areas and later selling excess acreage to developers to finance schools. It favored quick-take zoning authority as a negotiating tool to keep land prices for school sites from escalating. And it urged using faster and more basic construction methods.

All of these are good ideas that ought to be pursued. The problem will be coming up with a way to finance construction of these new schools that Harford so desperately needs.

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