School building needs debated Officials fear efforts of planners to reduce total of new schools

November 27, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll school officials and the county's planning commission can agree on one thing -- enrollment numbers are crucial to any decision about school construction.

The problem is, the commission wants to pare the county's six-year capital spending plan at a time when the school system predicts increasing enrollment.

In 2006, even with four new buildings -- two high schools and two middle schools -- the county will have no seats for more than 1,200 students at the high school and middle levels, Vernon Smith, director of school support services, told the commission Tuesday night.

He predicted drastic consequences if two new schools are eliminated from the capital improvement budget -- a proposal advanced by two planning commissioners. Rather than spend $100 million for four schools, Grant S. Dannelly and Maurice E. Wheatley would limit construction to two buildings and shift students to other schools.

"We are mortgaging our future," Dannelly said. "Let's focus on only building two schools and ensure space for other students by redistricting."

Board President C. Scott Stone said the commission should work with the school board to find solutions to the serious crowding at more than half the county schools. The county relies on 118 portable classrooms. Liberty High and West Middle each have 12 portables.

"We need serious relief," Stone said. "We would like to be part of any solution. It's a complicated issue, and let's solve it together."

State law gives the planning panel the power to stop construction of any public building it deems inconsistent with the master plan -- the county's blueprint for growth that is undergoing major revisions. The County Commissioners can override such a recommendation.

"We are chartered to determine consistency with the master plan," said Thomas G. Hiltz, commission chairman. "That is the basis for any capital improvements project."

The majority of the seven-member commission agrees that Carroll faces serious crowding in the schools, but members disagree on solutions, he said. The panel shied away from calling the four schools inconsistent with the master plan, with Dannelly, Wheatley and Robin M. Frazier dissenting.

"Two additional schools are inconsistent when a number of schools are underenrolled, because [the school system] hasn't redistricted in years," Dannelly said.

Katrina Tucker, Westminster city planner, said the municipality might object to the commission finding a new school inconsistent with the master plan.

"The [County Commissioners] agreed to build two high schools," she said.

Wheatley offered his plan, which he said would save the county nearly $39 million in construction costs. He estimated many vacant seats in the school system by 2006. By altering boundary lines, the system could take advantage of those vacancies, eliminating the need for at least two schools, he said.

Commission member Deborah L. Ridgely said, "On the surface, there are enough seats, but we have to consider where those seats are. Is it feasible to bus South Carroll kids to New Windsor?"

Wheatley said he would defer any decision to the County Commissioners on whether to eliminate two schools from the capital improvements budget.

Smith pointed immediately to what he called a flaw in Wheatley's plan. "You can't lump schools together," Smith said. "You can't put a high school kid in an elementary because there is a seat there."

Smith provided the commission with the most recent enrollment projections. Within five years, the county will have nearly 9,000 high school students. Even with the planned construction of a high school for southeast Carroll, the county will have a deficit of 600 high school seats.

"My bet is those seats will be needed in the Westminster area," Smith said.

Under the Dannelly and Wheatley proposal, one new high school in the Westminster area would be eliminated. The deficit of 600 students does not warrant the $28 million it takes to build another high school, Dannelly said.

The numbers "justify building a school with a larger capacity than 1,200" -- the recommended capacity for a high school -- Frazier said.

But county educators have long opposed larger schools. Redistricting is a possibility, but not a long-term solution, school officials said. Altering boundary lines could also reduce the justification for state funding, particularly in the Westminster area, Smith said.

"If children are put in the right seats, somewhere along the line the population will decrease," said Dannelly. "We either inconvenience kids on buses now or have intolerable tax increases. This county can't ask for taxpayers for $100 million for four schools."

In a letter to the County Commissioners, Hiltz will detail the planning commission's concerns with the number of schools and locations. He also will encourage discussion before school officials submit site plans.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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