Planners cautious on building of schools Panel suggests redistricting

December 17, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Carroll should not build new schools until after eliminating alternatives, the planning commission advised the County Commissioners yesterday.

The panel recommended that the county build only one new high school and one new middle school in the next six years, rather than the two high schools and two middle schools the school board says are needed to accommodate the county's growing school population.

The recommendation, if followed, would save the county about $35 million.

The planning panel is recommending fewer schools, Chairman Thomas G. Hiltz told the commissioners, because members are confident of only a "two- to three-year window" of school population projections.

For instance, the school board estimated two years ago that Carrolltowne Elementary in Eldersburg would be 66 percent over capacity before a new school would relieve crowded classrooms, Hiltz said. But yesterday, school officials gave the panel a revised estimate, saying the school would be 33 percent over capacity.

Such a "huge" disparity within such a short time makes it virtually impossible to plan effectively for new schools, Hiltz said.

The commissioners, the planning panel and the school board will meet with state officials this afternoon to try to agree on a formula for determining when new schools should be added to the county's six-year capital improvement program.

The capital improvement program is an annual estimate of what the county will need to spend on capital projects in the coming six years.

The initial draft, prepared by the county budget department and reviewed by the planning panel over the past month, calls for expenditures of $344 million between 1998 and 2004.

Nearly half of that total -- $151 million or 44 percent -- is sought for school projects. Carroll intends to use 9 percent of its income tax revenue to pay interest on bonds sold to fund those projects.

But planning panel members such as Grant S. Dannelly of Marriottsville said the price tag for new school construction is too high.

Savings could be achieved, Dannelly told the commissioners yesterday, if the county builds two-story schools, shares sports facilities and eliminates student parking lots.

Boundary lines

But the biggest savings would come by shifting students through redistricting, members of the planning panel say.

They suggested in a cover letter to the commissioners yesterday that "a single middle school located in northern Westminster could mitigate acceptably the inadequacy in middle schools" if combined with a comprehensive redrawing of school boundaries.

Similarly, they suggested that a centrally located, "thoughtfully designed" high school would relieve crowding in Westminster and South Carroll and give the school board time to plan for any future high schools.

Although redistricting is politically unpopular, "nobody [in county government] is in disagreement with it," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell.

He said he "will be sitting up there with the Board of Education" to show his support when a redistricting plan is shared with the public in February.

Dell and Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown called for more interaction between the commissioners, the school board and the planning panel.

"The more we get together and talk, the better things will go," Dell said.

Joint committee sought

Because each body has a specific area of responsibility, school construction decisions are "widely dispersed," Brown said. "The design and type of school is the province of the school board; where to put the school is the prerogative of the planing commission, and how to pay for the school is the responsibility of the County Commissioners," he said.

"Many times, we are, quite obviously, not on the same page. We need to look at the best solution from all three standpoints."

One way to do that, Brown said, is for all three bodies to appoint a representative to a joint committee formed to deal with school construction issues.

"We should be having ongoing discussions" with each other, he said.

Meanwhile, the commissioners will review the capital pTC improvement proposals in the spring and adopt a six-year program and capital budget for the coming fiscal year in May. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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