Md. schools face influx of students

January 31, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Public school enrollment has reached its highest level in Maryland since the 1970s, and nearly 100,000 more students are expected to flood the system over the next decade.

The result -- the state's biggest crush of students in more than 20 years -- is sparking debate over ways to accommodate them:

* Spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools and face tax increases.

* Economize by adopting unpopular alternatives, such as larger class sizes, portable classrooms, split sessions and year-round schooling.

* Do a little of both until the crisis passes in the first decade of the 21st century.

"It's crunch time," said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a former deputy superintendent of schools. He expects his county to spend $25 million a year on school construction through the year 2000.

"If we do not reduce costs, in the next four or five years there will have to be a tax increase to support the building program," Mr. Ecker said.

The enrollment surge is the result of what demographers call the "baby boomlet." Parents born in the post-World War II baby boom began to have children in large numbers during the 1980s. Those youngsters now are filling the schools.

Outer-tier suburbs of both Baltimore and Washington, D.C., face the most rapid growth. Howard County's enrollment soared by more than 10,000 in the past decade, and it is expected to bulge by another 11,000 by 2002, nearly doubling the county's student population in only 20 years.

The boom also poses severe problems in more established suburbs such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Montgomery, projected as the state's largest system with 132,000 students in 2000, has built or reopened more than 30 schools in the past six years alone.

Enrollment statewide is expected to jump from nearly 755,000 last fall to a projected 847,000 in 2002, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.

Even Baltimore City, despite its declining population, has registered increasing enrollments since 1988, including a 2,500-student jump this year. City enrollments, however, are expected to peak in 1996 while those of almost every other jurisdiction keep growing.

The pressures on middle and high schools will be especially intense. While elementary enrollments should peak in 1998, the number of students in grades seven through 12 is expected to grow by 30 percent statewide between 1992 and 2002.

Calvert, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Frederick, Montgomery and Queen Anne's counties all are projected to have secondary school enrollment increases of at least 40 percent.

"It is a daunting vision for the future," said Sidney Kramer, the former Montgomery County executive who headed a state task force on school construction last year.

More money requested

Following the task force's recommendations, Gov. William Donald Schaefer increased state funding for school construction and threw his weight behind exploring the concept of year-round schooling.

Even with the extra money, though, the state can't come close to funding the $239 million in school construction requests submitted by local governments for the year beginning July 1. There is only $81 million in the pot.

More requests are in the pipeline. The state Interagency Committee on School Construction projects that such requests will total $964 million between now and 2000.

The Maryland General Assembly added $20 million to the school construction fund last year, but Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat who chairs the House Education subcommittee, said he expects only "modest improvements" this year.

As for alternatives to construction, "we are always open to creative suggestions, but year-round schooling is the only really new idea on the horizon," Mr. Maloney said.

Under year-round schooling, traditional summer vacation would be abandoned. Students would attend school 180 days a year, (( but they would take vacations in three-week chunks spread throughout the year. Proponents say students retain more of what they are taught under such a schedule.

A building that houses 600 students on a regular schedule could accommodate 800 on staggered year-round scheduling, said Tish Rennings, a Maryland State Department of Education official who has studied the concept.

Six counties -- Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Howard, Montgomery and St. Mary's -- and Baltimore City have applied for state grants to study year-round schooling, but public reaction to the idea has been generally negative. Critics say year-round schooling would disrupt family life, cause child-care and scheduling nightmares and require large expenditures to air-condition schools for summer use.

"I'm disappointed, particularly with professional educators, who I believe are not giving it serious consideration," Mr. Kramer said. "The alternative is more money and more school construction, and that money is not available."

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