Suburban antipodes

April 28, 1996|By Elise Armacost

YOU'VE HEARD the old analogy about two people looking at a glass of water: One sees it half-full, the other half-empty. Apparently, the same principle applies to the politics of education.

For two months, the Anne Arundel school board has fulminated over a plan by County Executive John G. Gary to stop approving new subdivisions when county schools reach 115 to 120 percent of capacity. Board members, teachers and PTAs call it pro-developer -- a ploy to let them keep building houses after schools are full.

But Baltimore County parents are rallying to save an almost identical plan threatened with termination. That six-year-old law, which bars new growth in areas where elementary schools are more than 20 percent over capacity, is scheduled to expire June 30. Parents and community leaders want it extended.

What in Anne Arundel is seen as a developer's dream appears in Baltimore County as a builder's worst nightmare: a ''moratorium.''

What's going on here? Is there a polarizing agent in the water? In Baltimore County, ''This has always been framed as an anti-development measure,'' explains County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, who voted last year to extend the ''moratorium'' hoping it would protect overcrowded schools in his district.

County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger came up with the idea when he was council chairman, representing a district demanding slower growth and relief of school crowding. Parents and community leaders liked it from the start. They still like it.

Builders hated it from the start. They still hate it. ''It's just bad for business,'' says Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.

Mr. Ruppersberger is now on their side. He says the moratorium has outlived its usefulness and should be lifted because the most serious overcrowding isn't occurring in areas of new growth, but in older neighborhoods where retirees are being replaced by young families. The moratorium needlessly penalizes builders, he says, and deprives a stagnating county of the benefits of growth.

Two too cozy

Baltimore County education supporters counter that Mr. Ruppersberger wants to get rid of this moratorium because he's cozy with developers. In Anne Arundel, meanwhile, education supporters accuse Mr. Gary of wanting to impose it because he's cozy with developers.

Except, of course, no one in Anne Arundel calls the 120 percent measure a ''moratorium.'' There, it's a ''plan to boost class sizes.'' These semantic differences have been picked up by the local press corps in both counties, which says something about how reporters are influenced by the perspectives of the people they cover. The Sun's coverage of the Baltimore County law describes it as a ''moratorium'' in every single story. But the M-word does not appear one time in reportage of the Anne Arundel controversy.

No one except Anne Arundel board member Thomas Twombly seems to have a clue why the two counties have such polar views of the same measure. He says Baltimore County residents have been ''duped'' for the last six years into thinking this is a moratorium instead of a favor to builders.

But wait a minute. If that's the case, why are the builders fighting to get rid of it? And if this moratorium is really a pro-growth ploy that will destroy schools, why, after six years, are Baltimore County's biggest overcrowding problems in old neighborhoods instead of areas of new growth?

Maybe, since Baltimore County schools are much more severely overcrowded than Anne Arundel's, stopping development at 120 percent of capacity looks more appealing to school advocates there than in Anne Arundel.

Maybe Anne Arundel school board members, who think building should halt when schools become 100 percent full, are ahead of the times. Maybe not.

''Totally unrealistic,'' says Aaron Plymouth, Randallstown parent, member of a school facilities committee and a council-appointed panel to study the Baltimore County moratorium, of Anne Arundel's 100 percent idea. Capacity figures are not absolute; class-size formulas, usage of school space and enrollments constantly fluctuate, he points out. School systems -- including Anne Arundel's -- routinely transfer children to schools that have reached 100 percent capacity.

''It's not like schools are hotels, with only so many beds and once they're filled no one else can fit,'' Mr. Plymouth says.

He's concerned about education. That's why, until somebody comes up with long-range solutions to school crowding, he supports the moratorium.

Mr. Twombly's concerned about education, too. But he opposes ''that stupid 120 percent thing.''

Somebody check the water. Something weird is going on.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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