Advanced algebra exam: School places and kids

Comment

August 11, 1996|By Brian Sullam

IF YOU WANT to really understand Anne Arundel County's school construction dilemma, consider an algebraic equation with many variables.

One key variable is the number of students in the county. The other is the number of schools and classrooms.

Simply matching these two doesn't solve the problem because this particular equation has many more variables.

The county needs to have the appropriate number of elementary, middle and high schools for the current school-aged population. Having lots of high school classrooms doesn't work if the elementary population is burgeoning.

To complicate the matter further, the schools have to be in the appropriate geographical location. Having lots of elementary classrooms in North County doesn't solve the equation if they are needed in West County.

New development, which normally increases the number of school-aged children, further messes up the calculations.

13,000 extra seats

Anne Arundel's school system has had great difficulty in solving this equation of many variables. The county's Committee to Study Adequacy of School Requirements reported in June 1995 that about 13,800 extra seats existed in the school system.

What's interesting, according to the study, is that the county's 12 feeder systems -- the network of elementary and middle schools that feed into a high school -- are relatively well balanced between capacity and enrollment. The Broadneck feeder system has slightly more students than it was designed to handle, and the Chesapeake system is handling about 5 percent more students than it should.

However, the committee reported that 24 of the county's 76 elementary schools, one-third, have more students than they were designed to hold. Nearly a quarter of its middle schools were overcrowded. None of the dozen high schools was considered to be over capacity.

At the moment, the school system doesn't have the flexibility to redistribute students evenly. Gone are the days when local governments could construct new buildings to accommodate overflows of students. With elementary schools costing about $10 million each, new construction is a dreadfully expensive solution.

While adding on classrooms to existing schools is a less costly way of dealing with the problem, even that solution can be quite expensive. Doubling the number of students at a school also means enlarging cafeterias, adding bathrooms and expanding computer labs, libraries, music rooms and other specialized instructional spaces.

Moreover, when the school board is building new schools or adding to existing ones, other parts of the construction budget are starved. Important repair and maintenance projects -- such as replacing roofs or antiquated heating and ventilation systems -- must be delayed.

Given the fiscal pressures on local government and the reluctance of the state to finance new construction unless there is clear evidence of overcrowding, perhaps the time has come to think about regular redistricting -- rather than constructing new schools or expensive additions -- as a means of allocating students.

Every five years, the school board should look at county schools and their enrollments. If school populations are out of kilter, they should be adjusted.

Like voter redistricting

Instead of treating redistricting to be merely an option to deal with mismatch of students and classroom seats, redrawing school attendance boundaries should be considered mandatory -- much the same way state legislative and federal congressional districts are adjusted after the Census.

Calling for redistricting is easier said than done, particularly since it would appear that elementary students would be the ones affected. Nothing is more explosive to a community than adjusting elementary attendance zones. Many parents buy homes based on the schools their young children would attend.

The concept of the "neighborhood" school is well entrenched in our collective consciousness. Many Americans believe there is an inviolable link between school and immediate community.

By forcing the school board to adopt redistricting when the numbers require it, the psychological link between school and neighborhood can be broken.

Just as there are intense battles over redistricting political boundaries, there will still be heated battles over redistricting school boundaries. But at the end of a compulsory process, school boundaries will have been redrawn and students more equitably distributed -- just as voters are when legislative districts are redrawn.

Under the current system, intense opposition is enough to derail any redistricting effort. Instead, the school board has to consider construction as its only real option to deal with the imbalance of enrollments and school capacity. Unfortunately, that is no longer the acceptable solution of this very complicated equation.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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