Waivering in face of development?

January 23, 1994|By Liz Atwood and John Rivera | Liz Atwood and John Rivera,Staff Writers

The portable classroom, considered by many a reliable litmus test for school overcrowding, seems to be appearing with troubling frequency on Anne Arundel County school campuses.

Many schools are badly overcrowded, say school officials, and they have no problem laying blame: rampant development allowed by a lax Department of Planning and Code Enforcement (PACE).

"Growth in the area is just unbelievable," said Carolyn Roeding, president of the County Council of PTAs. "I don't know who is to blame for the poor planning."

But county officials downplay the problem, saying the school board is overstating the case. They believe any overcrowding is temporary and can be addressed through less drastic measures.

Much of the controversy over new development and school overcrowding centers on waivers to the county's adequate facilities law granted by PACE. The law, adopted in 1978, was intended to halt development unless there are enough schools, road capacity, water lines and other public facilities -- including police and fire protection.

Waivers, which have become commonplace since County Executive Robert R. Neall took office in late 1990, allow developers to proceed with a subdivision as long as they pay a set fee for every student the new units are calculated to generate.

The increased development adds to the economic vitality of the county, planning officials argue. But their school system counterparts warn of major problems if the pace of new housing development is allowed to continue without an accompanying boom in school construction.

Sixty portable classrooms were being used in 1992. Last month, county schools were using 108. And school officials estimate they could be using 300 by 1995 and possibly 500 by the end of the decade.

"The dam is open," said Michael K. Raible, director of planning and construction for Anne Arundel schools. "These [housing] developments are now going through on a regular basis."

The implications, school officials warn, are dire. "Growth is the major issue of 1994," said Board of Education President Thomas Twombly.

Construction is under way that will place 1,132 new classroom seats in the county, including additions and new schools. Projects include additions to Deale and Parole elementary schools and North County Senior, a new Meade Heights Elementary School, a new Solley Elementary School and a new Andover Middle School.

Growth is rapid

Still, parts of the county, including Pasadena and the Broadneck Peninsula, are growing so rapidly that school officials say $100 million will be needed in the next two years and $382 million over the next five years to pay for more space.

The school board is asking the county to provide $77 million for school construction next year.

Although that is five times what schools were getting just four years ago, Mr. Twombly defended the budget request, saying the county until recently had sorely neglected school construction and renovation. Between 1978 and 1990, the capital budget for the schools averaged $15 million. That amount jumped to $30 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1993. For the current fiscal year, the schools received $46 million for

construction and renovations.

"We're playing major catch-up," Mr. Twombly said. "If you make a bad decision on growth, you don't recover from it."

While they concede there may be overcrowding in some schools, county officials maintain it's a temporary phenomenon, the reflection of a countywide baby boomlet that has already reached its peak.

"Do we spend $5 million on a new school or an expansion when we've got a problem that in two or three years will go away anyway?" asked PACE's director, Robert Dvorak.

Mr. Dvorak, a former fire administrator and longtime county official, pays little heed to the school system's prophecies of gloom. What particularly galls him is that the school system serves 10,000 fewer students than when enrollment peaked in 1973. Since 1971, the county has built 33 new schools.

But it isn't that simple, said school officials. Much of the extra space has been eaten up by computer labs, special education classes, prekindergarten classrooms, administrative offices and various state-mandated programs.

'We need to plan'

"Which programs would they like us to eliminate?" asked Mr. Raible, who has no interest in returning to the conditions of the 1970s, when the county was forced to rent church basements and fire halls for classrooms.

"It's true it isn't as bad as it was," he acknowledged, "but it will get there. We need to plan."

Mr. Dvorak also complained that the school capacity dropped sharply -- and artificially, he maintains -- when state education officials decided in October to change the recommended elementary school capacity from 30 students per classroom to 25 students. Educators cited studies showing students do better when taught in smaller classes.

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