School capacity sparks debate

Expected wave of middle enrollment raising concerns

Peak predicted for '07

March 15, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When Howard County's incoming tide of elementary schoolchildren begins to subside in a few years, officials expect the next enrollment wave to hit middle schools -- creating issues that are already sparking disagreement.

One involves the same dilemma the county faces with elementary schools -- when and whether to redistrict children from crowded outlying districts to Columbia's schools, where enrollments are dropping.

With elementary school populations set to peak in 2004, county officials are starting to think about the next predicted peak -- 2007 in middle schools.

"Ultimately, students outside of Columbia will have to be brought into Columbia. The decision people have to make is very simple. Do you want to use existing capacity or build new buildings?" said Maurice Kalin, associate county schools superintendent and enrollment/redistricting guru.

Other issues involve specific changes that sometimes ignite smoldering tensions.

Should, for example, a planned $1.2 million addition be built at Patapsco Middle near Ellicott City in 2003? Or should the crowding expected there be relieved another way? Patapsco children could be moved to under-enrolled Burleigh Manor Middle, farther west, or the space at Burleigh could be reserved for children crammed into Mount View Middle near Route 32 -- which Kalin favors.

Some critics, including County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, think that school officials sometimes manipulate district boundaries to achieve their ends.

"They tell us they cannot draw lines to include low-income kids, but they do it for this reason: to reserve capacity for the future when we have a problem today," he said about the Patapsco situation.

Some parents avoid older schools, mainly in Columbia, where standardized test scores tend to be lower.

This year, the school board allowed dozens of mainly white Columbia parents to hire school buses to take their children from Wilde Lake Middle to attend new Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

"Why not move some kids from Clarksville Middle to Columbia?" Gray wondered.

Touchy decisions

Other potentially touchy decisions await. Which neighborhoods should be included when district lines are drawn for a new middle school in the northeast region in 2001, when the rebuilt Ellicott Mills Middle will be finished? Two years later, district lines will be drawn for a $13.5 million middle school scheduled to open in Glenelg in August 2003.

By that time, the school board might have made changes in how it draws district lines and changed open-enrollment policies that critics charge sometimes add to inequities among schools.

The school board's redistricting process might well be different, said schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who is retiring in June after 16 years. Recent committees studying school equity have suggested more citizen involvement. "There's some sympathy in that direction from board members," Hickey said.

The basic choices are simple, those involved say. The devil is in the details.

"Do you want to build more schools or additions, allow less growth, redistrict or do some combination of those?" said David Berson, chairman of the citizens committee charged with studying whether the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance can be used to prevent crowding in middle schools.

There is a saving grace, Berson noted. "There are projected to be many fewer overcrowded middle schools than there were elementary schools," he said.

Still, the decisions are thorny ones for the school board and elected county officials who have to balance community resistance to redistricting with the need to conserve money and build as few new classrooms as possible.

Kalin says the thinking is to have middle schools slightly over capacity by the time enrollments reach their projected peak in 2007. The goal, he said, is to avoid having to close schools a few years later, when the wave subsides in middle schools and moves on to high schools.

Busy with more immediate concerns, the school board hasn't begun wrestling with the distant future.

"We have not been able to do long-range planning," board Chairman Sandra H. French said.

Since Patapsco is predicted to be one-third over capacity by 2002 and Burleigh Manor should be one-quarter empty by then, several County Council members wondered aloud about spending money for an addition at Patapsco.

"Why not move the kids from Patapsco back over to Burleigh Manor, and when the time comes to deal with Mount View, deal with that?" Gray asked. Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, also questioned the Patapsco decision.

Western county Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman expressed a general view common on the council.

"We can't afford to have schools that are under capacity. We just can't. If we have a school under capacity, we shouldn't be building a new school," he said.

Burleigh Manor parents like their school as it is, partly because it attracts good students transferred under the county's open-enrollment policy.

"It acts as a magnet school," said Barbara Watson, Burleigh PTA president.

Patapsco addition

There is a strong argument for going ahead with the Patapsco addition, advocates say.

"We love our school. There has to be a good enough reason to cut $1 million from the budget in order to bus kids," said Patapsco PTA President Valerie Linaberg. Her community, she said, is "waiting patiently" for its 116-seat addition.

She has a powerful ally in Kalin.

"If you prematurely relieve Patapsco with Burleigh Manor, then when Mount View [middle] is over capacity, you'd have to take [the Patapsco children] back," Kalin said.

But even Kalin is the first to urge caution in reading his predictions.

"They are projections. Nobody knows if they're on the dot," he said.

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