School crowding bill called too lenient Some say proposal in Baltimore Co. favors developers

September 19, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

A blueprint that aims to balance development and school crowding in Baltimore County is triggering debate over whether it tips the scales in favor of the building industry.

To the PTA and some county councilmen, the proposed law opens loopholes for development and is not strong enough,

"I think it's weak," said Linda Olszewski, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County. "I don't think it's going to solve the overcrowding issues."

To all sides, the bill drafted by Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz is a starting point toward answering a crucial question: As the council seeks a law regulating development around schools, what form should it take? The aim of the proposed law on adequate public facilities would be to preclude home construction around crowded schools.

"A bill like this, which has tremendous impact countywide, should be introduced to allow people to see in concrete terms what exactly is being proposed," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat.

"My sense is that the homebuilding industry would probably prefer not to have this law in place. My sense is that some of the parents and school individuals would prefer to have something even more strict than proposed.

"The art is trying to reach a reasonable compromise that doesn't fully satisfy both extremes."

His proposal, scheduled for a vote next month, comes as a 6-year-old construction moratorium around crowded elementary schools nears its Nov. 1 expiration.

In some ways, the bill is stricter than the moratorium. For instance, it applies to all schools -- elementary, middle and high.

Also, the moratorium applies when elementary schools are 20 percent over capacity. Kamenetz' bill would apply when elementaries are 15 percent over capacity; for middle and high schools, the limit is 20 percent.

Still, much criticism centers on "mitigating factors" that could allow development to proceed. Said the PTA's Olszewski: "You can get a waiver and then you can build and that means the facilities are still going to be overcrowded."

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, agrees that the bill "is meant to be a framework" but adds: "I want to be sure we don't provide too many mitigating factors."

For instance, development might be able to proceed if:

A school construction project in the most recent capital budget created enough new seats to ease crowding.

An adjacent school could handle the influx of new students under a redistricting plan.

The Board of Education adopted a plan to create school space -- through grade realignments, schedule changes, magnet schools, work-study programs or early graduation.

The developer included a donated school site, or builds an addition, renovation or replacement to provide room for the new kids.

The developer paid a waiver fee.

The proposal does not specify the amount of the waiver fee, which concerns Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

"I'd like a stronger bill that specifically lays out what the waiver fees can be used for," Moxley said. "And if we have waiver fees, I want to make sure they are sufficient."

Moxley also questions a provision that would allow a development to proceed with construction after a three-year wait, even if crowding persisted. "I'm looking for a long-term solution, not a Band-Aid approach," he said.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, said the three-year freeze is too short to be effective.

Kamenetz said the three-year wait is meant to force the county to act. "What we're doing is putting the onus ultimately on the county," he said. "It's the county's responsibility to build schools."

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, said, "I don't see it as a three-year waiting period; I see it as a three-year period for the county to solve the problem."

Of the bill itself, Riley said, "It is the starting point. And I suspect it will change substantially and there will be a lot of pressure to tighten it, to make it more of a moratorium. And there will be additional pressure to loosen it up, so it is more of a planning tool."

The Chamber of Commerce has opposed any law on adequate public facilities, arguing that a proposed $90 million bond issue would provide enough new school seats to solve the problem.

But with the County Council poised to approve some form of the law, the chamber might back the version on the table.

"The chamber is likely to take a position on this bill, and it very well may be some alteration or change from a prior position," said Stuart D. Kaplow, chamber vice chairman. "It's a major piece of legislation. It's something we need to carefully consider."

Tom Ballentine, director of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said his group wants to study the bill before commenting.

Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the good news is that a proposal is on the table.

"What attracts people to any county is the quality of the schools," he said. "And overcrowded schools are certainly not very attractive."

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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