Time to Stop Hoping for School Miracle

COMMENT

April 17, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Carroll County, 157 years old, is going through an adolescent growth spurt.

Population is on the rise. The roads are more crowded during rush hour. New shopping centers and subdivisions are sprouting up. But the place where you see the greatest evidence of the county outgrowing its infrastructure is in its schools, particularly in South Carroll.

At Sykesville Middle, 1,100 students are crammed into a school that was designed to house about 900. Although it opened this year, Westminster's Friendship Elementary will have to add portable classrooms next year to accommodate all the pupils pouring in. And at Eldersburg Elementary, some fifth-grade students have spent their entire young school careers in portable classrooms.

Each year for the past five, the number of students in Carroll has increased by at least 250 and by as much as 700 pupils.

Every year for the next four, the number of elementary school children will increase between 300 and 400 pupils -- the equivalent of adding another elementary school each year.

The numbers keep multiplying. In 1988, 20,978 children were enrolled in Carroll public schools. By next year, enrollment will have increased to 25,450, according to school system projections made last fall. By the end of the decade, Carroll VTC could have close to 30,000 public school students.

This explosion in school enrollment is a problem that county officials would like to forget. Rather than deal with the problem, they seem to believe that some miracle will solve it for them.

Like many other jurisdictions, the county has relied heavily on state school construction money. The county has appealed to the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction for half of the $12 million needed to build the proposed Oklahoma Middle School. Even though the state has indicated the school won't be funded this cycle, the county commissioners and legislators persist in their quest for state aid.

Hoping that the state will fund these badly needed schools is no longer a practical strategy. The county must begin digging into its own pockets to pay for school construction. Where is this money to come from? There are three possible sources: raising the property tax; increasing impact fees levied against developers, or increased borrowing.

Raising the county's property tax rate is naturally out of the question in an election year.

Increasing the impact fee on new construction, while attractive to many voters who think that approach won't affect them, would not deliver the revenue the county needs for school construction.

In the last fiscal year, for instance, the county collected about $3 million in impact fees, about $2.5 million of that earmarked for schools. If the impact fee were to remain at its current $2,700 per house and housing construction were to increase, it would still take about five years for the county to collect enough from the fees to build Oklahoma Middle School. One year, let alone five, is too long for many South Carroll families to wait for that school.

Doubling the impact fee is not the answer either -- there just isn't enough new construction to tax. During the past decade, the county has never issued more than 1,577 building permits in a single year. Even if the impact fee were $5,400, which would immediately drive up the cost of new construction in Carroll and drive down the number of new houses, the county could not raise enough money to pay for a new middle school. If the peak construction year of 1988 were repeated, the amount of revenue from the fee would total about $8.5 million -- about $3.5 million less than needed.

Borrowing, the third option, is really the only satisfactory way of financing school construction. However, the county commissioners have had an aversion to issuing the needed bonds even though Carroll could comfortably borrow millions for these needed schools.

As of June 1993, the county had about $77 million in outstanding bonds. This represented about 3 percent of the total assessed value of the county, which stands at about $2.9 billion.

Although Carroll does not have a legal debt limit, county financial advisers warn that the county should never let its bonded indebtedness exceed 15 percent of the county's total assessed value.

Using that 15 percent yardstick, the county could handle about $316 million of additional debt this year. As the county's assessed value increases, which it has every year for decades, that number also increases.

There is no need to borrow to the recommended limit, but adding about $25 million -- which would finance the desperately needed school construction program -- would be more than manageable. Even with the recent increase in interest rates, the county would be financing its debt at the lowest levels in more than two decades.

The additional debt service would be manageable. At the moment, about 8 percent of the county's $130 million operating budget pays for interest on previous borrowings. The county could easily manage a slightly higher level of debt service. Certainly, the return of having sufficient schools would be worth the cost.

Continued dithering over the schools only compounds the current problem of school crowding and guarantees a future crisis.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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