Pupil count complicates growth plans

Crowded schools put parents, developers in turmoil in west county

Building ban triggered

Changes in county's enrollment prediction laid to flawed method

January 21, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Predicting school enrollments is the key to one of suburbia's most vexing problems - building enough classrooms to keep parents and developers happy, without overdoing it.

Instead of having public satisfaction with laws limiting development near crowded schools, Howard County is in turmoil over the issue because of consistently faulty enrollment predictions in fast-growing areas such as River Hill, Columbia's newest village.

The discovery that school system predictions for enrollment at Pointers Run Elementary in River Hill in 2003 were off by more than 300 pupils triggered the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which could force closure of the entire western county to development, starting in 2003. The error - the county undercounted the number of pupils expected - was discovered only after the school's PTA did a private head count of 1,000 homes.

Despite general agreement among school officials that they are using an inaccurate statistical method to make predictions in high-growth areas, they have not changed it. Top school officials do not even agree on who supervises the system's demographer, George Becker.

"It's an issue [faulty predictions] we are all going to have to act on as a system. We have an issue about the projections in fast-growth areas. We need to find a method to address it," Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said.

Becker agrees with a consultant who helped Baltimore County address a similar problem in 1998 - that Howard County is using the wrong method for making critical projections.

William S. DeJong, an Ohio expert working on enrollments for the District of Columbia school system, said the "survival cohort" method Howard uses, which bases predictions on past conditions, "doesn't work well in fast-growing areas" because it uses "historical trends and interpolates them to the future."

DeJong said his firm used a half-dozen methods in much larger Baltimore County - including clustering several schools in a group - to get accurate predictions about what was happening in the fast-growing northwest section of Baltimore County. As in Howard, where overall countywide projections are accurate, predictions for small, fast-growing areas such as Owings Mills-Reisterstown were always too low, producing crowding and complaints from parents.

Tracy Richter, a project coordinator for DeJong, said the firm includes birth statistics and other information in a computer program DeJong has developed for this task. "This system we've done in-house has worked very well," he said.

Becker said he has recommended changing statistical methods to a "yield" system that would count how many children to expect from each new home, but permission has not been granted. Becker's bosses can't even agree who is responsible for his predictions.

Cousin said that Becker works for him on school construction issues and reports to Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin on enrollment projections.

But Kalin told the Howard County Council last week that Cousin supervises Becker in all respects, while he, Kalin, is stuck explaining the faulty predictions in public. He said he will begin supervising Becker's demographic work next fall.

To compensate for the errors, Kalin told the council that he plans to allow PTAs to do their own counts, as River Hill's parents did, if school projections are off by more than 6 percent for at least three years. It would cost too much, up to $600,000 a year, for the county schools to do that work, he said.

Parents at Fulton and Hollifield Station Elementary schools have asked to do their own counts, but Kalin said they do not qualify.

Neither landowners nor PTAs are happy with that stance.

E. Alexander Adams, an attorney for several landowners in the western county, complained to the County Council last week that allowing PTAs to do the counts is not fair because they have a vested interest in the outcome. But Kalin said that is why he imposed the conditions. So far, he said, only Pointers Run would qualify.

Rosemary Mortimer, who represented the Howard County PTA Council, objected that using PTAs to do the counts would be "cheap labor" for a task that the system should do itself. "It's unfair," she said.

The inaccurate projections have riled landowners and developers, pitting them against angry parents who want a new western county elementary school to handle the uncounted children.

Caught in the middle is the County Council, which is to discuss the situation at a work session Tuesday and is expected to vote Feb. 5 on whether to close the western county to development in 2003.

"I find it amazing that we knew there was an error," said Adams, noting that the projections for Pointers Run have risen "60 percent in four months."

A ban on building would not affect only well-heeled developers.

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