Better school figures pledged

Accurate predictions needed on enrollment to gauge development

January 24, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With critical decisions about future school construction and development at stake, Howard County school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke pledged late yesterday to quickly find an accurate way to predict school enrollments.

At a meeting with the County Council, O'Rourke also said that he would review a new enrollment chart that, if approved by the council Feb. 5, would close the western county to development starting in 2003 because of school crowding not foreseen seven months ago.

"I'm fully responsible for it," O'Rourke told council members, who asked why predicted enrollments turn out to be wrong year after year. "The lack of credibility cannot be tolerated."

The educator added, "We need somebody other than us" to fix that. He invited Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, to help in hiring a private consultant to quickly do the job.

In Howard, predictions of how many students to expect in schools three years in the future is the key to county government decisions on how many schools to build, and whether development must be delayed to allow the county to provide the facilities before crowding occurs.

"This chart is the foundation for so much," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. "These decisions affect millions and millions of dollars, and I don't see this conversation any different than it was two years ago, or four or six years ago."

"I am as troubled by this as are you," O'Rourke said, promising that "it will not be the same kind of conversation six months from now."

Despite their doubts about the accuracy of the numbers, and the urging of landowners who want to develop homes in the western county, council members are reluctant to delay the vote.

That's because by voting Feb. 5 they would enact legislation to implement the 20-year General Plan approved last fall. The plan calls for 25 percent fewer homes to be built than in the last plan.

Any delay would allow developers and landowners more time to get building permits, possibly thwarting the General Plan.

But several members said they have no confidence in the school system's predicted enrollments.

The enrollment figures are the critical factor in the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which limits future development around elementary and middle schools with enrollments predicted to be more than 115 percent of capacity.

New enrollment projections for Pointers Run Elementary in River Hill, Columbia's newest village, show that the school would be at 171 percent of capacity in 2003, and 189 percent the next year, if nothing is done.

The predictions are based on a head count by the school's Parent Teacher Association, after years of what they felt were undercounts by school system demographers.

But Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, threatened to vote against the new chart or to table it because of inaccuracies.

"We really need to nail down the accuracy of these particular numbers before I can vote on it," Gray said. "I don't accept the PTA's numbers. This is the school board's responsibility. We need to really go back to the drawing board."

The new count for Pointers Run is so far over the legal limit that the council, under the law, must vote to stop development in the entire western region.

Audrey Gaither, a retired county teacher, told the council a development ban in 2003 would be a major hardship on her family, which is trying to develop 24 home sites on 48 acres of its Highland farm.

Other western county landowners have hired lawyers to push their complaints.

Under the law, if development is stopped, builders must wait for a maximum of four years if the county does nothing, or until the crowding is relieved by school construction or redistricting.

Also last night, the council discussed a bill - also set for a Feb. 5 vote - that would add hundreds of sites to a list of historic properties governed by development guidelines designed to help preserve them.

Several owners of properties that might be added to the list spoke at the council's public hearing last week . They said they fear the vote could ruin multimillion-dollar plans they have for developing portions of their properties.

Dermid and Joyce McDonald said a $1.5 million deal to develop part of the 16.7 acres they own on Elibank Drive in Elkridge could dissolve if the buyer feels the new guidelines might stop development on the land, which is now used to board horses.

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