Process is tedious but may illuminate


Howard Viewpoints

January 23, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

You had to wonder who was in charge of the agenda.

As a dozen or so parents waited to testify about the threat of overcrowding in middle schools, the Howard County Council fiddled through a list of routine chores: a cable TV contract, some personnel upgrades in the police department, a zoning matter.

The parents took their seats, milled about in the lobby outside the council chamber, handed their testimony to reporters and then took their seats again. The council droned on as if they weren't there. If public officials really want public participation in the affairs of government, perhaps they should let the bureaucrats and the highly-paid consultants do the heel-cooling.

That said, the process -- sometimes as hallowed as the product -- may produce answers in spite of itself.

In this case, the question was whether a so-called middle school test should be added to something called the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

A commission of citizens decided not to recommend such a test, finding it too complex. It was a convergence of overlapping control mechanisms against a background of uncertainty: Was growth certain make an overcrowding test a necessity? Didn't common sense dictate implementation of a test now before growth, once again, swept in ahead of needed new construction?

Almost every witness said yes. Add a middle school test to the one already in place for elementary schools, they urged.

In neighborhoods where the elementary school is fully occupied -- operating with 100 percent of the planned student capacity -- developers faced limits on the housing units they can construct.

A similar limit should be in place for middle schools and, proponents said, if the limits were imposed school by school (not district wide) it would be manageable, fair and prudent.

"Can we afford not to provide a safety net?" asked Debra Plunkett, president of the Ilchester Elementary School PTA. "We demand it," she said. In at least one case, absent such a test, a school hit 150 percent of capacity.

"The test," said Courtney Watson, a parent and member of the committee that recommended changes in the facilities regulation, "would only stop a new development if a large amount of unpredicted growth occurs within one middle school area in a short amount of time. This test would truly act as only a safety net."

A representative of the county chamber of commerce, Guy Ciazzo, opposed the parents. He said the committee was right to defer any such test for several years.

"There's enough attention being paid to growth," he said, "that there'd be time to look it."

But, asked Councilman Christopher Merdon, a sponsor of legislation adding the school-by-school testing option, aren't we at a point where the test is needed now? Can we really depend on the school department's guesses about growth? Yes, said the chamber's man with the hint of a grin.

Mr. Merdon is joined in advocating this change by Councilman Allan Kittleman. They are hoping their Democratic colleague, Guy Guzzone, will vote with them to add the test.

Mr. Guzzone said he has not decided how he will vote. He may ask for a postponement of the issue while he seeks additional advice from planners and school administrators.

His conclusion thus far: A further test may not be needed if all the management tools now in place are refined and focused more finely so that the county can be more a manager of growth than a reactor.

"We need an array of tools," he said, citing the zoning ordinance, redistricting, planning and the capital budget, all of which have some impact -- along with the adequate facilities act -- on the growth and where it occurs. It seems likely that citizens will have further opportunities to testify as Mr. Guzzone examines the panoply of tools.

And his ruminations may be critical.

County Executive James Robey says he will veto the facilities bill if it includes the middle school test.

He could find the Merdon-Kittleman amendment acceptable, of course.

Or he may be persuaded that Mr. Guzzone's approach makes sense.

Instead of adding new regulations -- even as many find the current regulatory system inadequate -- it could be a better route for everyone, parents, students and developers.

Like the Titanic love story, the process will go on -- without any casualties, one hopes.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County. He can be reached at 410-715-2847.

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