Board weighs school options

System urged to track new housing as aid to projecting enrollment

Facilities exceed capacity

Panel suggests lowering threshold that flags potential inadequacy

April 11, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Attempting to resolve a problem that members alternately described as "a burning concern" and a process so complicated it gives one member "ice cream headaches," the county Board of Education heard ways last night to improve the method of predicting student enrollment from year to year.

A committee of local and state planners, parents and school staff recommended that the school system enhance its use of the spreadsheet-based calculation of past grade-to-grade ratios by tracking new and proposed housing developments and by cooperating with officials from the county and Carroll's eight municipalities.

"While I strongly support what we came up with [in staying with the same projection method], it is because we did not find anything better. It is not a fabulous, fabulous formula," Laura Rhodes, a member of the Carroll County Council of PTAs, told the board. "I have come out of this thinking that this is a big fancy guess, rather than a solid, concrete formula."

The committee also suggested that the county lower the threshold at which schools are considered to be too full to allow a developer to build more homes in the area - a recommendation that County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier warned is "too drastic."

Concerned about the inaccuracy of school system projections of how many students will show up at each of the county's 36 elementary, middle and high schools each fall, interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker appointed the committee this year to learn if a better method exists to predict enrollment than the one used across the country and by most of Maryland's 24 school districts.

A Sun analysis of five years' worth of Carroll's student enrollment projections found that although most of the system's predictions fall within 5 percent of each school's enrollment, even that small a discrepancy can leave principals scrambling at the beginning of the school year to accommodate as many as three extra classes of students.

Committee chairman James Doolan, the school system's transportation supervisor, told the board that better coordination among different county agencies - and lowering the threshold - should fine-tune the projections.

"What we learned ... was that we [the school system and county government] sort of assumed that we both were checking this, but it wasn't happening," he said. As a result, housing developments were approved when schools were at or exceeding their capacity and schools in fast-growing areas, such as Mount Airy and South Carroll, have paid the price in crowding.

Schools must be 20 percent over capacity before they are deemed too crowded for the county or a municipality to permit homebuilding nearby.

The committee recommended lowering that trigger to the point where schools reach capacity, rather than exceed it.

The county ordinance - known as concurrency management - was designed to alert officials to an approaching inadequacy in county infrastructure - including roads, water supply and schools - within the next six years because of increasing development.

"It's supposed to wave a red flag to the county commissioners so they can plan some relief," Frazier said. "But if you use 100 percent capacity - and the other two county commissioners have voted to use [a similar measure] for middle schools - it will make every middle school in the county inadequate except for one.

"That means there's no houses being built in all of Carroll County and I don't think anyone thinks that's good for our county. ... Concurrency management is supposed to slow growth, not stop it all together," said Frazier.

School board President Susan W. Krebs responded that the county ordinance isn't working. She offered Mount Airy Elementary as an example of its failure.

That school "is not even at 120 percent capacity and they're in crisis," she said. "The entire fifth grade will be in portables next year. The red flag is not even up yet, but they're in crisis. It takes three to five years to build a new school after the red flag goes up, and all we're trying to do is get the red flag up sooner so we have time to prepare."

With 810 students in a school built for 666, Mount Airy Elementary is 22 percent over capacity.

The school board is moving ahead with plans to open a second elementary school in the area in 2005, but the project has not received state or county funding.

The board asked Ecker last night to consider the committee's recommendations and return with an action plan.

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