Tough choices for schools, developers

Enrollment figures sharpen threat of overcrowding

Home builders alarmed

Numbers could put a stop to plans for new housing

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

CLARIFICATION

In an article published Sunday in the Howard County edition of The Sun, county Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, and developer Jim Schulte were quoted about crowding in middle schools. But the specific problem on which they were commenting - involving Elkridge Landing and Ellicott Mills Middle schools - was edited out.

In new charts detailing enrollment predictions, Elkridge Landing Middle School was shown at 120 percent of capacity in 2004 - a level of crowding that would force part of the northeast to remain closed to development. But nearby, at the newly rebuilt Ellicott Mills Middle School, enrollment is predicted to be only 87 percent of capacity in 2004. Because the northeast school region was closed for several years because of crowded elementary schools, this latest prediction only lengthens the delays for builders - thus Merdon's comment that "something needs to be done," and Schulte's statement that "It is very frustrating."

Howard's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance delays new homes for up to four years if an elementary or middle school is predicted to be more than 115 percent of capacity in three years. A new elementary school is scheduled to open in the region in August 2003.

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 who has pushed hard for a new northeast elementary school and a 12th high school.

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 new schools. The county is scheduled to open a northeast elementary school and a new western middle school in two years.

But instead of only two county schools being affected in 2004, as was 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 housing development in areas around the schools. That law had been changed, lowering the threshold for overcrowding from 120 percent and adding middle schools to the test.

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, and that redistricting could make a difference for those schools.

Still, providing more classroom space is getting ever tougher in a county hard-pressed to afford the new elementary school and middle school slated to open in August 2003, a $41 million high school planned for 2006 and a slew of classroom additions.

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.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray agreed, calling redistricting "the only logical conclusion."

Without redistricting, Rouse Co. Senior Vice President Alton J. Scavo expressed concern that Columbia's school enrollments could wither until some schools might have to close.

"That's not a good thing," Scavo said.

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