Protecting schools from development Baltimore County: A building moratorium should be part of a broader strategy.

June 10, 1996

THE IMPACT of new building on school overcrowding has been overstated in the Baltimore region's two oldest, most developed suburbs. In Anne Arundel, only 670 children have been added to a school system of 70,000 due to waivers of its adequate facilities law. In Baltimore County, the most seriously crowded schools are not in growth areas, but in older neighborhoods where young families are replacing empty-nesters.

Nonetheless, these governments still need to protect endangered schools from development, even if new building isn't pumping as many kids into them as is commonly believed. That's why the Baltimore County Council is doing the right thing by continuing a ban on development where elementaries are 20 percent over capacity, and why the Anne Arundel school board's opposition to a more restrictive policy planned by Executive John G. Gary is misplaced.

For some reason, Anne Arundel school supporters perceive Mr. Gary's policy -- which denies waivers of the adequate public facilities law when elementaries become 115 percent and middle and high schools 120 percent full -- as a pro-growth measure. They want building to stop the minute schools become 100 percent full, which is unreasonable because capacities are not absolute. Mr. Gary has given the board until June 30 to come up with a realistic alternative to his policy, or it will go into effect.

In Baltimore County, the problem is that this building moratorium should only be one small part of a strategy for dealing with school crowding. The moratorium is meaningless in areas where demographic change -- not new growth -- is the issue. And it shouldn't be the primary strategy where new growth is the issue. For one thing, it doesn't help crowded schools located next to districts with space because the law assumes redistricting should be an option, even though few school boards are willing to do it.

Baltimore County needs an adequate public facilities law, which every other county in the area already has. Such laws typically prohibit development where basic services are not in place, unless builders get permission from the county in exchange for fees to be used for classrooms. In Anne Arundel, the 120 percent rule is designed merely to prevent inappropriate use of this waiver system. That's how it should be used in Baltimore County as well.

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