Gary's misunderstood school policy His maligned strategy is a responsible approach to complex problem.

March 08, 1996

THE NOTION THAT development is packing kids like sardines into Anne Arundel the school system suffers pockets of overcrowding, but they are more the result of changes in state class size formulas than a real increase in student population. The number of pupils is actually lower than in the early 1970s, despite the construction of 57,000 homes since then. Some 14,000 classroom seats countywide sit empty. Current growth in enrollment is expected to peak in four years, then decline.

County Executive John G. Gary's new policy on development and schools must be viewed with these facts in mind. Contrary to popular opinion, Mr. Gary has not come up with a new idea to allow subdivisions where schools are full. The county already permits this; since 1988, builders have been able to apply for waivers no matter how full a school may be. Mr. Gary's policy limits growth where schools are full. It does not allow new subdivisions where elementary populations are 15 percent above capacity and middle and high school populations are 20 percent over capacity. It would require developers who want to build near schools that are full to pay for additional classrooms or wait until there's room. It suggests that reasonable redistricting -- a concept school and county officials need to define and agree upon -- ought to be an option. The policy mirrors recommendations of a citizens panel, which found that waivers for development have added only 670 children to a system of 70,000.

Misunderstanding about this policy is rampant. Parents mistakenly believe student-teacher ratios are about to grow everywhere, when in fact overall capacities -- not necessarily class sizes -- could increase temporarily in selected schools. School officials are perpetuating the misconceptions by decrying the policy as part of a statewide push by local governments for more control over school fiscal matters. School systems prefer the current arrangement, which allows them to support popular solutions and blame government for not raising taxes to pay for them. But counties cannot spend millions to build schools that will be half-empty in 10 years or stifle an already laboring economy by unnecessarily halting growth without trying to manage the student population some other way.

That is Mr. Gary's point.

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