Howard schools struggle with shifting demand, supply

Inaccurate projections complicate planning

January 22, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, people want it all.

School officials want new school buildings to handle crowded classrooms and want improvements to older buildings. Elected officials also want those things, but without raising taxes.

But there's more.

All the officials and parents want small classes for first and second grades to help children learn to read and small high schools to give each teen-ager a better chance to grow. But those imperatives - placing fewer students in each room and high school - increase the pressure for more buildings. And redistricting - shifting students from crowded schools to those with lower enrollments - is unpopular.

As county officials ponder requests for an unexpected 12th high school - with a $41 million price tag - and another elementary for the rural western county, they wonder how many expensive schools even wealthy Howard can afford.

That's not the only worry.

If school enrollment projections continue to prove unreliable and more schools are built, will some of those buildings end up white elephants when the predicted downturn occurs? Or worse, will Howard County repeat the experiences of Montgomery and Baltimore counties, closing schools in older areas and opening others in growth areas?

Officials in Howard, for years the fastest-growing county in the region, are looking for development to slow. They've sharply limited the number of new houses allowed - especially in the western county - in the new 20-year General Plan, but school enrollments keep defying expectations.

"We're victims of our own success. When you keep running around the country telling people you've got the best school system, people are going to want to come here," said county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr.

He worries that constant school construction in outlying areas could draw more families, undermining county efforts to attract people to older neighborhoods that the county wants to keep strong.

"How come the best test scores are in the most overcapacity schools?" Rutter wondered about crowding at Pointers Run Elementary near Clarksville and in Ellicott City. That crowding has triggered the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance that will stop approvals for development in the western county and in the northeast after 2003 until more elementary schools are built.

Others worry that increased demand for land is driving prices up and availability down, while inflation boosts the price of everything the government does. Higher land costs make it harder for the county to find and afford school sites, school officials said.

Tom Ballentine, spokesman for the Howard County Home Builders Association, said builders tell him that individual lots are costing thousands of dollars more than a few weeks ago.

Builders, he said, aren't always to blame for crowded classes. "Class-size reduction took capacity equal to five elementary schools out of the system," he said.

Enrollment projections at Pointers Run Elementary have been so inaccurate, he said at the council's public hearing last week, that "clearly the PTAs and the business community are losing confidence in the numbers." That hurts children and businesses because they can't rely on a stable, predictable environment, he said.

While they search for ways to create room for Howard's youngsters, county officials worry about overbuilding. If the school board's projections aren't reliable, how do they know that the schools they build will be needed in the near future?

Howard doesn't want to follow the example of Montgomery and Baltimore counties, in which cycles of closing schools because of dropping enrollment were quickly followed by pressure to build as the number of students increased.

Having to close schools in older areas while opening them in newer ones would be "a tragedy," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, commenting on the Montgomery-Baltimore County experiences in the past two decades. "This is not going to be easy, by any stretch of the imagination."

Montgomery County closed 60 schools between 1976 and 1988, and it has opened 43 since then. Six of the buildings that were closed have been reopened, when enrollments again began growing, said Bruce Crispell, Montgomery senior school planner. One new high school, Montgomery Blair, can hold 2,800 students - twice Howard's capacity.

Baltimore County has closed 23 schools since 1976, while building 17. Three closed buildings were reopened for growing enrollments, but only after millions were spent on renovations. Sometimes old buildings can be adapted for new uses. The former Towsontowne Junior High is now Carver Center, Baltimore County's high school for the arts.

`The will to do it'

But education advocates say the bottom line in Howard County is clear, despite the financial and political costs. The county must maintain its school system as one of Maryland's best, and with the highest average household income in Maryland, Howard's residents can afford it.

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