School overcrowding in Baltimore Co. defies easy solutions, task force finds

March 13, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

An article Thursday on school overcrowding in Baltimore County incorrectly listed the date that Lutherville Elementary School is scheduled to reopen. Classes will resume there in September 1993.

With Baltimore County's school enrollment expected to soar from 90,000 to 120,000 by the year 2000 and with money tight, a special committee convened to find ways to alleviate overcrowding had little to offer residents at a meeting yesterday.

The School Facilities Task Force, created by County Executive Roger B. Hayden, is charged with finding ways to solve overcrowding problems before June 30, when a temporary building ban runs out. The moratorium, approved by local lawmakers in August 1990, has stopped new construction in areas where schools are 120 percent over capacity.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Currently, half the county's 93 elementary schools are overcrowded and 14 are more than 120 percent over capacity. One new elementary school is scheduled to open in Perry Hall in September, when old Lutherville Elementary also will be reopened.

But because of the budget crunch, Mr. Hayden has already said there won't be enough money to hire new teachers for 3,700 additional students the county expects in September, or to replace any of the teachers who leave over the summer. As a result, he has predicted that classroom size will increase from an average of 24 students to perhaps 26 students. In some heavily developed areas, classrooms may end up with 35 to 40 students.

To make things worse, the fiscal crunch has forced cuts in the capital budget for schools. Last week, the Planning Board axed nearly two-thirds of the money the school system had requested for new buildings, expansion and improvements; it cut some of the money voters had approved for school construction in 1990 as well.

Yesterday, the schools task force did put 10 recommendations on the table to deal with overcrowded classes, although most would have no real immediate effect.

For example, the committee suggested that the county put "major emphasis" on school construction in its capital budget. But schools have always been a big item in the county's capital budget. Besides, the department's requests were just slashed and there is little chance Mr. Hayden will restore them.

The committee also suggested reopening some of the schools that were closed in the 1980s. But county recreation director Wayne Harman, a former school official whose department uses many of the now-closed buildings, said it would cost at least $3.5 million to refurbish and repair each one.

Moreover, most of the closed schools are not in areas where an influx of new students presents a problem.

Another committee recommendation is to urge that the state stop mandating programs, services and regulations without providing money to implement them.

Still, if nothing changes and the building ban is lifted in June, teachers association president and committee member Edward Veit said he expects the overcrowding problem will get worse and prompt a public outcry.

However, a developer at yesterday's meeting argued that construction is not to blame. Larry Macks, who also serves on the committee, said new construction does not significantly drive up the number of schoolchildren.

School planner James Kraft agreed. He cited statistics that show school population dropped by 54,000 between 1971 and 1986, a period when the county issued 84,000 building permits.

He noted that the Loveton Farms development in Cockeysville, which has 1,200 homes, had added only 44 elementary students, 20 middle school students and 19 high school students.

However, Mr. Kraft conceded that lower-priced town houses generally produce many more school-aged children.

Moreover, Mr. Macks said, the birth rate -- not development -- is the key to school enrollment. Because the county's population is growing very slowly overall, he said, the real issue is residents' willingness to pay enough taxes to provide quality education.

He urged that voters be asked directly whether they favor new taxes to finance more school construction. "Everybody keeps flying away from that question," he said.

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