Officials seek answer to school crowding Balto. County struggles to balance development and classroom capacity

November 30, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The crowding at Powhatan Elementary School off Liberty Road has triggered Baltimore County's long-standing moratorium against construction near crowded schools -- but it is too late for the law to help.

No one disputes that Powhatan is crowded -- 492 children were enrolled as of September in a school with a capacity of 383. That enrollment surprised school officials, who say the extra pupils came from older homes in the 40-year-old neighborhood near the city-county line.

The school enrolled 436 children last year, and projections were for 453 this year, with enrollments steadily dropping off before reaching a low of 330 in 2003. School officials are mystified about what has prompted the sharp increase.

Crowding to get worse

Crowding is expected to get worse with completion of two housing developments. Officials say they can't do anything because work has begun on those projects, which will add 179 homes -- and more than 50 elementary-age children -- to the area.

It's a situation some community advocates say illustrates the weakness of the moratorium law and the hurdles the county faces in dealing with crowded schools.

"One of the problems with the current law is it's really a reactive thing," said Foster Nichols, a leader in the push for stronger laws on the impact development has on schools, parks, roads and services. "By the time you measure the problem, you're out of sync with development."

The current law, enacted in 1990 and due to expire July 1, blocks approval of any development near elementary schools that are more than 20 percent over capacity, unless relief is in sight. Projects that have been granted building permits can continue.

This year, seven elementary schools are more than 20 percent over capacity, but only Powhatan triggered the moratorium law. The others have relief in sight, either from planned additions, new schools or empty seats in an adjoining school district.

Phyllis Bloom, PSTA president at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, calls the law "too lenient," saying a failed County Council proposal two years ago had loopholes big enough "to drive a construction truck through it."

But developers and the county administration take a different view, arguing that enrollment increases are driven more by family patterns than by construction. In particular, they say younger families with children are moving into existing homes, displacing older families.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger also contends that most school crowding around the county has been eliminated through his administration's investment of millions of dollars in new schools and additions -- producing 9,000 new seats in four years.

"So far, it's working," Ruppersberger said of the county's strategy. But he also said, "I would be in favor of a stronger law if we can't fix it."

Tougher measures needed

School activists note Powhatan's predicament as evidence that the county must toughen its development regulations. "We believe there needs to be an adequate public facilities ordinance that addresses all the needs," said Linda Olszewski, president of the county's PTA Council.

A law that requires enough schools, libraries, roads, and parks is needed to achieve what Ruppersberger wants, she said -- to attract more young families to buy homes in the county.

Some county elected officials support that view. Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican, said he wants a new, broader law with more teeth. "I feel that the present law is inadequate," he said.


But others are cautious.

Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat who sponsored a comprehensive law two years ago only to see it fail, called Powhatan's troubles "a school board issue."

"The council needs to address school capacity issues, but I'm more concerned now about high school seats," he said. Projections show the crowding problem moving into high schools in a few more years.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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