When is a full school too full? Who knows?


July 14, 1996|By Mike Burns

HOW FULL is full? How full is overfull? That's a prickly question that nearly everyone in Carroll County is pondering, and the answers are as difficult as ever.

The county Planning and Zoning Commission recently tried to come up with a sensible answer to that question regarding the capacity of schools, a decision that seemed to please no one -- and for that reason alone might be considered an appropriate verdict.

The commission set a series of standards for stopping subdivision developments when area schools are overcrowded, ranging from 110 percent to 120 percent of school capacity. These interim rules apply during the next 18 months as Carroll does a comprehensive overhaul of its master plan for land use. The school system will continue to use the established formula ++ to determine over-capacity; the commission will use those figures in applying its standards for subdivision approval.

The result is a code that establishes a measure of consistency in subdivision approvals, with firm criteria and with mostly credible enrollment projections.

Yet there is enough flexibility left to continue the unending debate in Carroll County about the adequacy of public schools and the pace of growth.

The commission's interim review standards allow for development approval if a new relief school is scheduled to open in the area within 12 to 24 months (depending on whether preliminary or final approval is requested of the commission).

Yet the county would not be forced to build a new school any time the enrollment goes above rated capacity by 10 or 20 percent. That would still be a county budget decision, based as usual on the willingness of the state to deliver its share of the construction cost.

Subdivision growth will, undoubtedly, be restrained in some parts by a lack of adequate-capacity schools. That was the clear intent of the Interim Development Control Ordinance that was enacted this year. But there's no evidence so far that Carroll is delaying school construction simply to thwart developers and shut down the homebuilding industry.

In fact, the county has been a leader in Maryland in forward-funding construction of new schools -- using its own tax dollars up front to build and then praying the state will eventually cough up its 65 percent share in reimbursement. Carroll is still waiting/hoping for state aid on school construction that was completed three years ago.

At the same time, Carroll school officials point out that enrollments at most of the 34 county schools are above the rated capacity. And the situation is expected to worsen this fall.

It's not a matter of putting a couple more desks in a room. Last year, Carroll schools had to use 108 portable classrooms to house the student overflow.

Next school year, at least 13 elementary, middle and high schools are projected to exceed 110 percent of capacity. That's high enough for the commission to deny subdivision approval in those areas, unless a new school is scheduled to open and provide relief within two years.

Ironically, the state construction-aid system makes the Carroll County Board of Education reluctant to endorse the planning commission's strict school-capacity standards for new developments.

No pain, no gain?

No pain, no gain, is the motto. Unless there's a perceptible discomfort level with school overcrowding, the county's not likely to rank high enough on the state list to qualify for the reimbursement. So reducing the level of over-capacity actually reduces the county's chances to get funding for new schools.

And Carroll, as previously noted, is most vulnerable to denial by the state Interagency Committee on School Construction because it has already spent its own money to build a number of these schools, thus appearing to be in less desperate need. That could result in Carroll's having to forward-fund all of its new schools, as it falls farther behind the state reimbursement cycle.

The commission is not unaware of that dilemma. "This treads a very thoughtful line between stoppage that would block solutions and stoppage that allows enough overcrowding to occur to qualify for [state] funding for solutions and still preserve a quality education," observed David Duree, the planning commission chairman.

But these subdivision review standards are only in place through 1997, with new schools already in the pipeline for the crowded South Carroll and Westminster areas.

The short-term deferrals should not have a serious long-term effect, as long as the county accepts its responsibility to plan for adequate public facilities to support its population.

The planning commission has taken a lot of criticism for its inconsistent, poorly explained attitudes toward development plans, both from builders and from the growth-control advocates. The school-capacity standard for subdivisions has its flaws, but at least it shows an honest effort to let development applicants and the public know what the rules are during this critical 18-month review of the county's future plans.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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