More than a dozen parents urged the Howard County school board last night not to expand the official capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron high schools to 1,600 students each, warning that neither can accommodate the increased number of pupils.
"Take into account the current size, dropout rate, discipline problems, test scores and general demography of the target school. Who could possibly make a recommendation to increase the population of Howard High and maintain that students would not be affected in a negative way?" said Debra Colgan, first vice president of the Clarksville Elementary School PTA.
"If we are going to back off our prior conclusion as to optimum size, at least don't pretend it won't have a negative impact. It obviously will," Ms. Colgan said.
The parents' testimony came during the board's public hearing on the proposed $37.7 million capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and on the school system's construction plans for the next decade.
Under the proposed budget, two planned elementary schools and three school additions would be eliminated and several other projects delayed.
But the item that drew the participation of more than half the 25 people who testified last night was a proposal to expand the official capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron to 1,600 students each. Mount Hebron's addition would open in 2000, and Howard's expansion is planned for 2003.
Such a change could allow more than 1,900 students to attend each of those schools because a school's enrollment may exceed its official capacity by up to 20 percent.
Although Centennial High School had been mentioned by the school board as being considered for expansion to a 1,600-pupil capacity, that apparently is no longer the case.
School officials say that the capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron need to be increased to 1,600 students because high school enrollment is expected to increase by 400 pupils a year through 2006. The number of students in the neighborhoods near those two schools is expected to grow particularly quickly.
But parents warned that neither school's facilities are adequate to handle the increased enrollment, saying that already crowded areas such as hallways and lunchrooms would become more congested.
"If our school had the infrastructure capable of supporting 1,600 students, I am confident that our school community would be willing to accept the increase of student population to capacity while devising creative methods to mitigate the disadvantages of a large school," said Grace Lee, Howard High's PTA president. "But that is not the case."
Dan Lennon, president of Mount Hebron PTA, also said that school would be unable to absorb an increase in official capacity to 1,600, comparing an expansion to making the school a "warehouse for our children."
Many of the parents urged the board to consider other options to handle the expected high-school enrollment increases, such as expanding the county's three new high schools instead.
The school board should carefully consider alternatives, said Susan Tucker, chairwoman of the Howard County PTA Council's budget committee.
The issue of equity was raised repeatedly by parents. They said it would be unfair for only two schools to bear the brunt of larger capacities.
"If you believe that smaller high schools are better, you should make all high schools smaller. If you believe that larger high schools are better, then you should make all high schools larger," said parent Ann Koch. "If you believe that smaller high schools are better but the county cannot afford to make them smaller, you have to make them all larger.
"It is important that all students in the county are treated equitably. To discriminate against the students on the basis of where they live is wrong," Ms. Koch said.
As is their custom, board members listened to the 90 minutes of testimony without comment. But a majority previously had expressed reluctance to approve the proposal to increase the two schools' capacities.
The board is scheduled to hold a work session on the capital budget proposal Tuesday night and vote on it Thursday afternoon.