Here's a Cure-All for Carroll's Growth

COMMENT

April 09, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

I am going to offer a modest proposal that would eliminate most of the major problems that confront Carroll County.

Like a good 19th century elixir, it promises to cure everything that ails the county, from overcrowded schools to congested highways, rising taxes and loss of open space.

It will cut short Carroll's rapid residential growth and eliminate the need to raise taxes and build new schools and roads.

But before I give you the answer, we must agree that growth is the source of the county's woes. If we can just stop people from moving from other Maryland jurisdictions to Carroll, we probably can return Carroll to its idyllic past.

What is drawing people to this county?

It is not cheap housing. Housing is a lot cheaper in Baltimore, of course, yet the city is losing residents by the tens of thousands.

Carroll's low crime rate is very attractive, but plenty of other rural and suburban places have low crime rates.

It isn't simply open space, because parts of Baltimore and Howard counties are as wooded and scenic.

So what is the most powerful magnet attracting droves of people to the county? The education system.

Carroll is one of a handful of counties known for having a well-functioning school system. County students at all grade levels perform exceptionally well in the Maryland School Performance Assessment tests. They consistently place first or second in the entire state in the annual exams. Moreover, the county's dropout rate of 2.9 percent is the fourth-lowest in Maryland.

Adults who have young children or are thinking of having children pay attention to such little things and are attracted to communities where the schools are perceived to be good and where students achieve.

These people, we agree, are the root of Carroll's problems.

They bring their kids here and before you know it, the schools are crowded, more teachers have to be hired, more textbooks need to be bought, more school buses have to be added to the fleet. And footing the bill for all these goodies results in higher taxes.

How to break this vicious circle?

Why not make the county's education system much less attractive?

The easiest and most obvious way to do that is to spend less on education. Carroll already is able to accomplish remarkable results by spending less than most counties in the state, but it's apparently still trying too hard.

Carroll's per pupil expenditure is $5,315 -- $663 less than the state average. But eight Maryland counties, according to 1994 data, spend even less. Garrett ($5,287 per pupil), Harford ($5,223), Cecil ($5,131), Wicomico ($5,127), Somerset ($5,107) Allegany ($5,035) and Caroline ($4,898) should set the standard for local politicians to emulate.

Carroll's goal should be to spend less than all the rest. (That's not a bad political slogan, either.) Shave $418 per pupil from the education budget and you'll save nearly $10 million right there.

Sure, there will be repercussions. But think of the benefits: Carroll automatically becomes less attractive to families now residing somewhere else.

Since federal law requires the county to maintain a high level of service for disabled children, their services will continue to remain adequate. The rest of Carroll's students will have to shoulder the brunt of the cuts.

Class sizes will probably increase. Instead of having 25 children in a class, we ought to allow 40. We might even be able to close some schools and fire some teachers. While we're at it, we can cut back on book purchases by having kids share their textbooks. We can save money by closing school libraries and media centers. If they need research materials, let them go to the county libraries like we did when we were kids. (Walked 20 miles in the snow to get there, too.)

Art, music, dance and physical education programs can be eliminated. Field trips, too!

If children want to learn how to use computers, let their parents buy them. If they want hands-on laboratory experience in chemistry, biology or physics, they can get it in college or go through life without it. Who ever remembers that stuff from school anyway?

The impact won't be immediate, but within a few years Carroll's test scores should begin to fall.

Word will spread. The migration to the county will slow. Carroll's residents with school-aged children might even consider moving other counties, getting more cars off the roads.

With the glut of houses on the market, property values will fall. But here's the good news: So will everyone's property assessments for taxation purposes.

For all those in the county complaining about the sums spent to educate children and about climbing tax assessments, a third-rate education system should be most welcome.

I wonder why no one came up with this idea sooner?

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

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