New school beset by its popularity

County nonplused by overflow of pupils in Owings Mills

More growth anticipated

Board members ask Hairston to confer with Ruppersberger

September 23, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

With the pupil population at New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills swelling far beyond expectations, school board members say they want to know what went wrong -- and how they can ease the crowding in this fast-growing part of Baltimore County as soon as possible.

They have asked schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to meet with County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to discuss how the school system can prepare for even more pupils -- an influx they fully expect.

They want the two men to talk about buying land for future schools -- and perhaps pushing a new Owings Mills elementary or middle school, possibly both, toward the head of the line for school construction.

Owings Mills is one of Baltimore County's fastest-growing communities, and development has been planned and directed here as one of the county's designated growth areas.

"If you allow people to build houses, it is likely people will move into those houses," said school board member Sanford V. Teplitzky. "This isn't a problem for 2001-02. This is a problem that's going to go on for the next 12 years. ... We need to react to the fact that we have all these kids."

Said board member John A. Hayden III: "It's something once we recognize it's there ... we need to deal with it at an accelerated pace."

The recently completed New Town Elementary was built for 707 children. The new school opened three weeks ago and has 935 enrolled, officials said. Extra teachers have been hired, and the school is expecting delivery of portable classrooms next month. Until then, one pair of teachers has to share a room, the school board was told Thursday night.

"They're still lining up to enroll," said Scott Gehring, executive director of schools in the northwest county.

New Town High School is going up across the street from New Town Elementary and is scheduled to open in 2003 for 1,500 students. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled there Friday.

A 600-seat middle school on Windsor Mill Road in Randallstown is planned, though advocates for a middle school in Owings Mills say it will be too far away to help. Work on an addition at one northwest-area elementary school -- the school has not been chosen -- is slated to begin during the 2003-2004 school year.

The solution to crowding at New Town Elementary won't be simple. Board members balked at the idea of changing the school's boundaries for next year to ease the crowding -- partly because it's hard to ask children to change schools too often, partly because there's really nowhere to send them.

Final enrollment numbers won't be compiled until early next month, but no elementary school surrounding New Town has room to spare.

"We don't have any schools in that cluster with room for 50, 100, 150 students," Gehring said.

The school board doesn't control where and when schools can be built. That authority rests with county officials who hold the purse strings. So that's where Hairston will start.

"The decision is squarely in the hands of the county," the superintendent said. "We can only give them the early sign of what we see coming."

The discussion can't begin in earnest until those enrollment numbers are final next month. By county law, a construction moratorium in the New Town Elementary area would kick in if the school's enrollment stays more than 15 percent over capacity.

"We're always concerned about making sure we're as accurate as possible in the imperfect science of doing school projections," said Ruppersberger's spokeswoman, Elise Armacost. "Of course, the county executive will talk to the superintendent about this."

The school board also wants Hairston and Ruppersberger to talk about White Marsh, because it, too, is a designated growth area.

"New Town is not an aberration," Teplitzky said after the board meeting Thursday. "It's a planned growth community that grew and we got left behind a little bit."

The state plays a role in school construction as well. State officials will not approve funding unless the number of pupils in an area clearly justifies it.

The county school board discussed Thursday its $27 million capital budget request to the state for the coming fiscal year. But no new schools are included in the request.

New Town's crowding is a testament to confidence in the public schools, Hairston said. He points to more than 40 children who attended private school last year and whose parents chose the new New Town Elementary this year. He said young families move into the developments nearby because of the promise of attending a new school.

"We're a victim of our own success right now and we have to work out ways to manage it," he said.

Meanwhile, school board members want to know if the formulas used by school district officials in predicting pupil populations need to be adjusted.

Board member Phyllis E. Ettinger said she is looking for "our assessment as to why we found our population projection for the school was so far off."

She understands it can be seen as a compliment to the school system, but said: "If we find ourselves about to be complimented again, I'd like to know."

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