Panel set to push schools savings Planning commission to give county board alternative to building

December 07, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The planning commission will tell the County Commissioners this week that Carroll can save millions of dollars by choosing alternatives to building all the schools that the Board of Education says are essential in the next six years.

But the seven-member planning panel is stopping short of saying that at least one new high school and one new middle school should be cut from a $344 million budget forecast of capital projects sought by department heads -- something three of its members had recommended.

Instead, the panel will emphasize the need for thrift when it forwards capital budget recommendations to the County Commissioners.

The planning panel reviews capital budget requests from department heads each fall to determine whether they are consistent with the master plan used to guide the county's growth.

The panel can veto construction of any public building it deems inconsistent with the master plan, but the County Commissioners can override that veto.

Rather than deal with specific budget items, the planning commission agreed Thursday to tell the commissioners in a budget cover letter that the county should look to redistricting and other cost-cutting measures before committing $100 million to new school construction.

Three members of the planning commission -- Grant S. Dannelly of Marriottsville, Robin M. Frazier of Manchester and Maurice E. Wheatley of Eldersburg -- wanted to cut at least one high school and one middle school from the budget recommendations. Although the panel decided to leave the decision to the County Commissioners, the three pressed their case Thursday night during a work session on the budget proposals.

Plans to build new high schools in South Carroll and Westminster by 2002 are "politically motivated," Dannelly said, and "nothing has been done to justify a new high school in either place."

Finksburg site sought

He agreed that at least one new high school is needed, but it should be put "somewhere in the Finksburg area," Dannelly said. Current plans to put three high schools within an 8-mile radius "make no sense," he said.

Finksburg commission member Deborah L. Ridgely said she doesn't know whether Finksburg is the appropriate site for a new high school, but is sure the site chosen for a new high school in Westminster is inappropriate.

The county had planned to put a new elementary school and a new high school on a hilly Westminster site near Route 140, but found 45,000 to 50,000 cubic yards of impenetrable rock there that would have to be blasted away if both schools are built.

Alternatives suggested

Planning commission members expressed doubts about the way the school board selects and acquires sites for schools and will recommend in their cover letter that the County Commissioners encourage the school board and the planning panel "to have early interaction" on potential school sites.

The school board could cut costs by redistricting students, increasing high school size from 1,200 to 1,600, building two-story schools, eliminating parking lots for seniors and having high schools share sports stadiums, commission members say.

Dannelly -- who believes growth in South Carroll should be slowed until the roads, schools and other services are adequate -- said he is worried that the county may get caught in a paradox of having to encourage growth to generate tax revenue to pay for the infrastructure needed to accommodate the growth.

The county plans to use impact fees on new homes and some income tax revenues to pay interest on bonds sold to build new schools.

'That's wrong'

"We're putting ourselves in the position of having to build houses to pay off bonds for schools," Dannelly said. "I think that's wrong."

Wheatley said the county could save $20 million to $39 million by building larger schools and redistricting students, given an average enrollment growth rate of 1.75 percent over the next five years.

But county Planning Director Philip J. Rovang told the planning commission that the school board's latest projections forecast a much lower growth rate -- 0.3 percent from 1995 to 2002.

"I find it very disturbing" that the school board is basing the need for new schools on enrollment projections that "aren't standing still," Wheatley said.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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