Projections cast Howard school plans into doubt

Enrollment estimates sharpen crowding threat

September 23, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Construction of homes in Howard County will be significantly slowed in coming years by new, higher school enrollment estimates and the resulting tighter controls on development around crowded schools, developers and officials predict.

"Development will be really constricted," said builder Donald Reuwer.

"What we're seeing is almost a double-whammy. It's pretty obvious the projections have been undercounted," said Courtney Watson, a parent activist.

But while community activists applaud the tighter controls they think should have happened years ago, county officials face a suddenly tougher challenge -- providing thousands more seats to relieve crowded classrooms while the cost of construction escalates.

The new school board capital budget request for fiscal year 2003 asks for $63.6 million -- $7 million more than last year -- to accommodate more students without building any new schools. The county is scheduled to open the northeast elementary school and a new western middle school in two years.

But instead of only two county schools being affected in 2004 as originally predicted, 14 will be affected under the new open/closed chart adopted by the county school board Thursday. Those 14 are expected to exceed 115 percent of their capacity, the threshold that triggers the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance restricting homebuilding in areas around the schools.

County planners said that 650 homes scheduled for construction next year and 725 homes scheduled for 2003 have been delayed. According to the new open/closed chart, 477 housing units will be delayed in 2004 -- for starters. If the County Council adopts the new enrollment projections in November, the number of homebuilding delays will grow as developers file plans and join the line of builders awaiting approval, said Jeff Bronow, chief of research.

"It just looks like the [enrollment] numbers are more accurate," county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said. "If the numbers are right, we should be preparing for it."

County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said, "If the projections prove to be accurate over time, there's no question we'll need more classroom space."

Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said school officials "want to take time to study and analyze things before we come out with a program that will add significantly to the capital request. We have time to do that."

Cousin said that half of the 14 schools in question are projected to be less than 5 percent above the overcrowding threshold.

A possible source of relief is countywide redistricting of all elementary and middle schools -- something the County Council has pushed for, but that parents and school board members oppose.

Guzzone called redistricting "critical," saying it was a step that must come before any plans are made for new buildings.

Cousin said countywide redistricting is scheduled for 2003.

Slow-growth advocate John Taylor said redistricting "is the court of last resort" in his opinion, "because it disrupts people's lives. When people move into a neighborhood, it's the local school that's played heavily on that choice. Within reason, the county government has to respect that."

"It is very frustrating," said Jim Schulte, vice president of Security Development, which has several small projects delayed around the county.

"The thing that is always somewhat baffling is that in middle school, these kids are already in the system. They [school officials] should be able to anticipate this," he said.

The answer to all the problems is an obvious one, Watson said: "more forward thinking."

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