Balto. Co. student numbers leveling New projections show little growth in decade, with some exceptions

March 19, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County schools can expect little enrollment growth in the next 10 years, new projections show, but some communities might see big shifts that affect construction spending and school boundary lines -- as well as development policies.

The enrollment forecast, released yesterday, will trigger proposals for construction and redistricting as early as Tuesday, Super- intendent Anthony G. Marchione said. Among the areas targeted for growth is Owings Mills, while the southeast's enrollment is expected to fall.

Consultant William S. DeJong, whose forecast calls for a 2 percent countywide increase by 2007, said some school enrollments will grow, some will decline and some will not change -- all within the same area. Such change is certain to spark controversy, he told school board members at a briefing.

"You as a board will have to manage three districts within one," said DeJong, whose forecast shows enrollment increasing 104,208 today to 106,336 in 2007. "And the public is going to go crazy. I know the problems this is going to cause."

The forecast shows enrollments of elementary and prekindergarten age children dropping by 600 over the next decade. The enrollment of middle-schoolers is expected to increase by nearly 500, and of high schoolers to increase by 2,200.

Parents at crowded Deer Park Elementary School near Owings Mills said the forecast confirms their view that the county is doing too little to stem the tide of new students. Enrollment is expected to jump from 555 to 929 students in 10 years if nothing is done.

"This tells us what we've been telling them since last June," Deer Park PTA President Lisa Cohen said. Even with a possible 100-seat addition at Deer Park, and 300 new elementary seats at a planned Owings Mills school, she and Vice President Michael Franklin said, the area won't have enough seats to handle young students.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger agrees, said Michael H. Davis, his spokesman.

"There is no doubt we'll need a bigger elementary school" in Owings Mills to help relieve crowding in the northwest, he said. School officials say the need is as obvious in Woodlawn, home for several of the most crowded schools.

But DeJong said countywide increases of 2,000 to 3,000 children a year over the past decade should fade as a decline in births translates into fewer children entering school. Births peaked at 9,801 in 1991 and have declined to about 8,800 a year, he said.

DeJong also noted a trend: declining births as new development continues. That means fewer children are coming from new homes, a theory embraced by developers and Ruppersberger, who have fought efforts to broaden the county's building moratorium around crowded elementaries.

"You have areas where younger families are going into neighborhoods," DeJong said. That, he said, is among factors he can't predict -- the level of migration from Baltimore to the county and from the county to outlying suburbs.

School board President Dunbar Brooks, PTA council leaders and Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents the fast-growing northwest, said the figures mean a comprehensive law to prevent more crowding is needed.

"It forces us to look at planning," Brooks said. "Right now we're kind of reactive."

Ruppersberger strongly disagreed. "What does that do?" he said. "It doesn't solve the problem. Our plans and our budget are going to be solving the problem."

The forecast of overall enrollment stability masks a quilt of changes in specific communities -- mainly in the fast-growing northwest and the Woodlawn-Liberty Road areas.

For example, the report appears to bolster arguments of parents at Woodlawn's Chadwick Elementary School, the county's most crowded elementary, that a new school is needed.

If none is built, Chadwick's enrollment of 650 students is expected to jump to 810 in 10 years, while nearby Featherbed Lane and Hebbville elementaries also absorb large enrollment increases.

Enrollment in southeastern schools is declining, which the administration won't begin dealing with until next year at the earliest, Davis said. For example, the forecast says enrollment in northwest-area high schools will grow by 1,700 students, compared to a decline in southeast high schools of 450.

But Brooks said numbers aren't everything. "This may be an area where we need greater services because it's under stress," he said, noting the rising poverty in his home area of Dundalk.

He and board member Warren C. Hayman said the board will have to carefully examine the racial implications of its decisions, although the forecast doesn't include breakdowns by race. Neighborhood jockeying over boundary changes, Hayman said, could create racial tensions.

"What we have to do as a board, and what we have to do as a community, is to take this on," Brooks said. "There is now no escaping it. We have to deal with it in a real and upfront way. Otherwise, we're not going to make this thing work."

Whatever the tensions, there was general agreement after the briefings that accurate figures will help the county plan for new students.

"For the first time we've got some numbers we can rely on," said Gene L. Neff, the school system's construction director.

DeJong and school officials said the forecast is a byproduct of closer cooperation between county government and school officials, which will lead to almost daily updating of information on housing, births and other factors that affect enrollment.

But that won't come for several more years, school officials say.

"Until six months ago, the computers at the county never talked to the computers at the board," school budget officer John M. Markowski said. "Now it's infantile -- baby talk."

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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