Panel hopeful about figures

Improved accuracy seen in projection of school enrollments

Howard County

October 12, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County schools' new enrollment guru won some cautious support last night from a tough crowd to please - a citizens committee whose members have struggled for 12 years to curb crowded classrooms in one of Maryland's fastest growing suburbs.

David C. Drown, in his first year succeeding retired school official Maurice F. Kalin, who did the predictions for years, explained how and why the county's school enrollment projections are getting more accurate, with the help of Ohio consultant DeJong and Associates.

"I think we're on the right track," he said, and predicted that despite some lingering confusion, the estimates should continue to improve - though he refused to vouch for statements in the school system's capital budget predicting fewer students in Howard by 2011.

"This is a significant improvement," committee chair David Berson said at one point.

"I'm encouraged by what you said," added Jim Eacker.

The committee, meeting last night in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, was briefed on the new counting techniques used to predict enrollments in fall 2004 and beyond.

The projections are shown on charts used to limit housing construction in 2004 around county schools that are expected to be severely overcrowded that fall.

The charts, submitted to the County Council for a vote Nov. 5, list all elementary and middle schools with their projected enrollments and an O or a C next to each school signifying whether the area would be open or closed to development in 2004.

Under county law, development is restricted around elementary or middle schools with enrollments at 115 percent of capacity or higher.

The law, called the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, regulates development three years from now, based on school enrollment projections for that year. The committee, which helped create the law for elementary schools in 1990 and added middle schools last year, is called the APFO Committee.

But the enrollment projections have been faulty for some schools, particularly in fast-growing areas like River Hill on Columbia's western edge.

"The whole question is one of credibility and of regaining credibility," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

"Getting these projections accurate is the most important thing on the county's plate," added Eacker, a 12-year committee veteran who reminded members that predictions once were that Howard County would be finished building new schools by 1996. "Now what we hear is there is no end [in sight]."

"The law [regulating development around crowded schools] is only as good as the data that goes into it," noted John Taylor.

A warning was issued by Guy Caiazzo, who said improved accuracy could falter if the county doesn't find a way to account for young families replacing aging couples in existing housing.

Scavo agreed, noting that as Howard fills up, "growth is a lesser and lesser part of it."

And Courtney Watson, another committee member, noted that hundreds of new homes are being built in older areas such as Ellicott City and Elkridge, not just in the rural western county or River Hill.

School board members have promised to redraw school-district boundary lines for the school year that will begin in August 2003, in an attempt to fill every vacant seat and avoid having to build expensive school buildings.

All six elementary schools in east Columbia are predicted to remain under capacity, along with two in west Columbia.

Longfellow elementary is listed at just 74 percent of capacity in 2004, while Hollifield Station Elementary in the northern region is predicted to be at 131 percent.

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