Cloudy Crystal Ball for Schools

January 06, 1995

Predicting the future of the economy is a high-stakes, potentially hazardous undertaking for anyone. No less so for school boards that must divine intentions of homebuilders and their customers in planning for new schools.

Will the economy strengthen and interest rates level off so that planned new developments will be built out and occupied, or will the plats remain untouched in the absence of consumer demand?

Case in point: Harford County's Forest Hill area north of Bel Air, where a new 600-pupil elementary school is the board's top construction priority.

The local elementary school is 30 percent over capacity, all but one of the adjacent elementaries are overcrowded, and 1,600 more housing units (resulting in about 500 more school children) are already approved for development in Forest Hill.

Harford officials say that situation amply justifies the need for a new 600-child school to open in September 1996. But the state Interagency Committee on School Construction, which decides which projects get 65 percent state funding, says enrollment projections support only a 440-pupil facility. Harford says that size is impractical.

The dispute is over the future of those 1,600 unbuilt housing units in Spenceola and Forest Lakes developments, whether they will be soon sold, constructed and occupied. And that depends on predicting the economy. Two years ago, these lots were expected to be developed by 1996; only 16 percent of the county-permitted units are built.

The state committee has no set capacity formula, looking at the circumstances of each application, including the political implications. With limited money to allocate among 24 jurisdictions -- $83 million this year -- it can't hope to meet all needs. But if its judgment on Forest Hill development is wrong, hundreds of small children crowded into trailer classrooms will be the losers.

Harford has received state approval and money for a half-dozen new schools since 1990. It has not been snubbed. But its predicament is another example that underlines the need for rethinking school financing, by the state and the localities.

Growing counties are under pressure to spend more of their own money to build needed schools, even without state reimbursements. They may have to build smaller than desired schools in order to get scarce state money, considering expansion in the future. The state, too, could be more flexible in viewing growth trends. No one's crystal ball is infallible, and the future of children is at stake.

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