Schools overestimate by 475 the number of new students

September 27, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Harford County is missing children -- about 475 of them, mostly elementary school age.

The school board had projected 1,300 new students would start school in the county in September. But only 825 new students showed up when county schools opened their doors a few weeks ago.

The nearly 37 percent difference has some politicians saying, "I told you so."

Councilman Robert Wagner, R-District E, said he has questioned the school board's projection figures all along.

"We need to stop and take a look at these numbers before we get too much further along with school construction," he said.

Mr. Wagner, a member of the education committee appointed by county executive Eileen Rehrmann last year, said he has always argued that the recent rapid growth in students was a temporary "bubble."

He said he has been concerned the county was building schools for a population boom which might not occur.

Sen. Habern W. Freeman, D-District 34, agreed. "If you look at the numbers, you wonder what is going on," he said.

"Middle schools and high schools are underutilized. There is probably a 20 to 25 percent vacancy rate at that level. What it comes around to is that the school board is having trouble following the bubble, getting schools in the right place to deal with the right age group."

In the mid-'70s, the school population reached an all-time high of about 34,000 students, the same number the school board believes is enrolled this year.

But Ray R. Keech, the school superintendent, believes the slower growth rate is temporary, caused by a "sour" economy. The school system is projecting 42,000 students by 1997. That would be 8,000 more students, about 23 percent more than now enrolled. Five years ago, the school population was 29,000.

"Young couples with little children are usually at the bottom of the wage scale," Mr. Keech said. "For them, right now, maybe they can't afford to move here and make an investment in a

house. When the economy is bad and there is a lack of job security, people are more cautious."

Mr. Keech said the school system is taking another look at its expected growth figures and trying to figure out where they went wrong. He said once the economy improves, school attendance will increase.

"We do everything we can to be accurate, and if you look back our projections have been amazingly correct," he said.

Mr. Keech said the construction of new schools is to ease existing over-crowding, not to handle new growth.

The county has 18 elementary schools, 11 of them already over capacity. The remaining seven schools range from 88 percent to 92 percent capacity. Abingdon Elementary School, the only new school to open here this year, is at 90 percent capacity with 543 students. It was built to hold 600.

Many of the overcrowded schools have relocatable classrooms to handle the overflow. But other parts, like the cafeteria, library or gymnasiums, cannot be expanded.

Construction has started on two elementary schools, in Fountain Green and in the Riverside neighborhood in Belcamp, which will open in September 1993. A Fallston middle school is also being built.

The school board's construction budget for next year includes money to build a 600-student elementary school in Country Walk in Bel Air, to open in 1994. The budget, which needs County Council approval, also includes money for a 300-student addition at Bel Air Middle School, to open in 1994.

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