School crunch haunts county

Redistricting solves crowding better than building, officials say

Studies suggest new school

June 24, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Politicians, school board members, consultants and parents have spent a quarter-century studying the need for or calling for a new high school in the western part of Anne Arundel County.

It is no closer to getting built than it was in 1975 when crowded classrooms at Arundel High School merited a layout in "Panorama," the school's yearbook.

The hang-up is that although the high school serving west county is near capacity, there are so many empty seats at other county high schools, including South River and Annapolis high schools, that spending $45 million for a new building looks wasteful.

Officials reluctant to take on the economic burden of construction seem to be inching toward a solution with a heavy political cost: extensive redistricting that would make better use of existing schools but probably would upset west county and south county parents who want their children in neighborhood schools.

"Nobody likes change," Del. Janet Greenip, a Crofton Republican, said of the problem. "Most people move into a community for the schools, and when they are redistricted out, they are not happy campers."

Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who is chairwoman of the county delegation, said, "It's a complicated and emotional issue for people."

Last night, the school board reviewed a master plan for school buildings that included no proposal for a new high school or any recommendations on dealing with crowding in west county. This month, Superintendent Carol S. Parham ordered the fifth study of the high school issue, to be completed in 2005.

In the fall, she is likely to present the board with another set of redistricting recommendations to vote on as it seeks a balance between, on the one hand, empty seats at Annapolis, Meade, South River, Chesapeake and Severna Park high schools and, on the other, seven high schools in the county that are at or near capacity.

This fall, Arundel High School will be a few students short of its state-rated capacity, according to county estimates. That is largely because the board shifted about 800 pupils from two of the three Crofton elementary schools into the South River feeder system last year.

Arundel will remain just below its 1,905-student capacity for the next few years, but the county estimates that enrollment will jump to 2,073 in 2008.

Shifting students to South River, which according to county projections will be 200 students over capacity by the 2008 school year, would create a domino effect, parents say. Once South River goes beyond its 2,030-student capacity, students will be forced out, possibly to Southern or Annapolis high schools, board members say.

That does not make South River parents happy.

"I think a lot of people in South River would have a problem with going to the Annapolis feeder system," said Denny Love, chairman of the South River Citizen Advisory Committee. "Why would Crofton be allowed to have all their children attend the same high school and we are not?"

Community activists in Crofton are resigned to a renewed campaign for a new high school. They are gearing up for more presentations to politicians, more letters to parents and more pleas to school board members.

Cynthia Johnston, chairwoman of the advisory committee, has devoted herself to school enrollment projections and redistricting. In the family room of her Crofton home, she has collected and filed every report and piece of paper put out on those subjects over the past two years.

Johnston and other members of an Arundel Planning Committee created by Parham in 1997 studied the long history of trying to remedy west county crowding while attempting to do what the superintendent asked: consider every possible solution except building a high school.

After painstaking research and dozens of long meetings, the group concluded that construction was the only long-term solution.

Twenty-eight years ago, Arundel High School was filled to the brim, even with a new addition. Starting in 1972, students attended classes in split sessions until Meade Senior High School opened in 1977. Officials said then that a new high school in west county was the best solution. In the 1980s and 1990s, several reports called for a new high school:

A 1987 countywide Redistricting Steering Committee report recommended building a high school in the Arundel feeder system to relieve crowding at Arundel, Meade and South River high schools.

In 1993, a Superintendent's Task Force on Facility Needs found that by 2002, Arundel High School would be 729 students over capacity and that a west county high school should be built as soon as possible.

Another countywide redistricting report in 1994 recommended building a high school that would open in 2001.

In July 1997, the school board adopted an annual Educational Facilities Master Plan. It noted that a new high school in west county would be needed to relieve crowding.

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