Lesson for Schools at the Courthouse?

January 25, 1995

If only it were so simple for school officials in Howard County to do what state officials are planning at the county's Multi-Service Center in Ellicott City. With its 250-space lot bursting at the seams, state officials plan to expand parking there. The center is home to the county's District Court, as well as other state and local agencies, and over the years its parking lot has gotten increasingly cramped. One attorney told a Sun reporter that he arrives for cases 45 minutes early lest he get caught in a protracted search for a place to park.

The school system faces a dilemma similar to that of the parking situation at the government complex, though on a much greater scale. With the school population estimated to burgeon at a 25 percent clip over the next five years -- the second-highest growth rate in Maryland -- and the competition fierce for new school money, officials are beginning to wonder whether it wouldn't be better to build larger schools or expand existing ones.

Driving the bigger-is-better argument is this supposition: Schools that accommodate more students means fewer new schools needed. As for expanding existing schools, officials estimate that if eight schools increased enrollments from 1,400 to 1,600 students, it would add 1,400 seats and solve the growth problem through the year 2005.

But can this crowding problem be solved simply by increasing the number of student desks? Hardly. Larger auditoriums, gymnasiums and parking lots would be needed at existing buildings, too. Those costs could wipe out any potential savings from not constructing a new, smaller school.

Despite this reservation, school officials have been unable to uncover any research that says larger schools adversely effect student achievement. Howard County has traditionally followed the approach that smaller is better, and the resistance to change is strong. County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga says "school board officials just aren't listening" when he says that many schools seem to be already underutilized.

But board members should not be bullied into merely doubling up in classrooms. They should take pause from the experience of the Multi-Service Center, which was built 12 years ago minus the consideration that the related need of parking would be inadequately served.

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