No such thing as a cheap school Building schools bigger, and sooner rather than later, produces savings.

January 15, 1996

BY AGREEING to explore construction of a larger elementary school than the norm in Eldersburg, the Carroll County Board of Education is taking the right approach.

Larger schools conserve taxpayer dollars, because they reduce costs for bricks and mortar, as well as staffing. In undertaking such a revision, however, county school officials must take care not to compromise their primary mission -- providing the best possible education for students.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the county commissioners' stated desire to build larger schools. It makes a lot of sense to increase the capacity of some schools on the drawing board.

In the case of the elementary in Eldersburg, officials believe a 600-pupil facility would be filled to capacity the day it opened. Designing it to accommodate an additional 150 students is preferable to being immediately forced to add portable trailers out back.

The problem is that in parts of this rural-suburban county, a 750-student elementary school would never be fully utilized. Filling the desks in such a school would require busing in children from distant neighborhoods, offsetting one-time construction savings.

Changes in school construction policy must remain mindful of the trade-offs that come with economies of scale. Bigger schools require larger heating and cooling systems, more bathrooms, larger cafeterias and recreation facilities. School and county officials need to work up a careful cost-benefit analysis to ensure they are getting the most bang out of their education buck.

One critical issue involved with increasing the size of new schools: The state may not finance these last-minute changes.

So be it. For the past decade, Carroll County has had a critical need for new schools. Waiting for state funds only exacerbated the overcrowding in a number of schools in growing South

Carroll, and the delay increased the ultimate cost.

With interest rates low, the county is in a good position to expeditiously build the needed school classrooms. At this point, postponing the construction of needed education buildings would be a false savings.

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