Looking for seats, but in all the right places?


December 14, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

SOME PEOPLE are grumbling about the lack of parking spaces in downtown Westminster these days (the holiday season, when meters do not need to be fed). But they overlook an important fact. Plenty of free parking spots are available in the Carroll County seat; they just may not be convenient to where you want to shop or visit.

That's something like the situation facing Carroll County schools: There could be enough total seats in schools to meet expected enrollment increases. But they're not in the right grades or school buildings or parts of the county. (Never mind that well over 100 portable -- trailer -- classrooms are in use this year.)

Thus we have Maurice "Ed" Wheatley of the planning commission adding up the total rated capacities of all Carroll public schools and pointing out that the empty spaces could be used by all projected additional students in the next few years. The county could save nearly $40 million in construction costs, by that reckoning.

School of empty seats

To which discussion commission member Robin Frazier observed in amazement: "We're going to have a whole school's worth of empty seats across the county!"

But Vernon Smith, director of county schools support services, disputes those conclusions. By 2002, if four new secondary schools are built, there will still be 718 more high school pupils and 550 more middle school pupils than available seats in those schools.

Projected enrollments can always change, and school officials have frequently been a bit high in their estimates. But this does not seem like there's much padding in the figures.

It's not to suggest that planning commission officials actually believe that a first-grader can be put in an empty seat in a high school classroom, or that a Sykesville seventh-grader might commute by bus to a middle school in Taneytown. They are simply trying to do their sworn duty, to scrutinize the school board's construction budget to see where cuts and economies might be made.

And with $100 million earmarked for new schools in that period (plus $50 million for renovations and additions), there's good reason to look for ways to trim.

Three of seven planning commissioners say that Carroll could scrap plans to build at least one high school and one middle school by the year 2002.

But the commission as a whole is urging the county commissioners to press the school board for redistricting of school attendance areas to increase use of available space and to build larger new schools for economies of scale. The panel also proposes shared athletic stadiums to reduce costs.

Redistricting schools is a sensitive issue, one that typically generates passionate opposition. It upsets the continuity of education and relationships, and redivides neighborhoods.

Yet the fact is that the opening of any new school is going to result in redistricting. The new school's population is not going to appear miraculously from outside the county. And that should be obvious in a county that is struggling with its most ambitious school building program in memory.

Similarly, when taxpayers have made substantial commitments to increase school construction, there's a legitimate expectation that a reasonable effort will be made to use existing facilities efficiently. If that means some sensible redistricting of school boundaries, some children will have to change. And a surprising number of them will actually welcome the change, for a variety of reasons, and with more flexibility than their parents might imagine.

What is important in such changes is to limit continuing redistricting of the same areas, so that kids are not forced to change schools every year or two. That's a matter of planning and common sense on the part of administrators and school board.

But building mega-schools is a false economy. When there's no space for all students to attend school dances and participate in activities, when the lunch period begins just after breakfast because of cafeteria crowding, there's a deficit in the educational experience.

At the same time, the county has to guard against the political maneuvering by competing communities seeking a school of their own regardless of countywide priorities. In other states, where school districts are smaller and more localized, the problem is not as pronounced (even though smaller districts may be less able to pay for needed new facilities).

But in Carroll and other Maryland counties, the geographic location of a new school must be justified by the statistics of need. That Carroll authorities finally decided this year to build new high schools in South Carroll and Westminster, instead of one school in the middle, still rankles some as an unwise political appeasement of those two powerful communities. Grant Dannelly, another planning commission member, restoked the controversy by saying that his figures show the new high school should be in Finksburg.

Which goes to show that there's a lot more room for ideas about how to meet school capacity needs than there is room for students in the schools.

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

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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