Western region could be closed to development

Early projections for 2005 show schools too crowded

New prediction method is used

Figures now go to council

action expected in July

May 16, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Western Howard County would be closed to development for 2005 because of crowded elementary schools, according to preliminary school enrollment projections produced by school planners this week.

The new figures represent the latest attempt by county officials to predict school enrollments years in the future -- part of a decade-old strategy for curbing classroom crowding in the fast-growing county by limiting homebuilding around the most crowded schools.

The enrollment charts will be submitted to the County Council next week and likely will be acted on in July.

Projecting future enrollment has been a rocky road, with parents often complaining that official predictions were consistently low, giving builders an advantage and crowding schools. Builders complained that the figures were unreliable, leaving them vulnerable to unforeseen, expensive delays.

The county hired a professional consultant last year to devise a more reliable system -- and the latest results indicate the parents might have been right. The latest forecast predicts total county school enrollment will be 50,598 in 2005, up about 11 percent from the current 45,672.

The draft charts show 13 elementary schools and five middle schools over the 115 percent legal threshold for crowding by 2005, but a new northeast elementary school and a new western middle school -- both scheduled to open in August 2003 -- should cut those numbers to nine elementaries and two middle schools.

Four other elementary schools -- Centennial Lane, Northfield, Deep Run and Guilford -- are less than 2 percent under the limit.

The entire western region is expected to be closed to building because the average enrollment for all seven elementary schools in the area would be 118 percent in 2005 -- over the legal limit and up from the 111 percent predicted for that year in charts adopted last fall.

If the figures don't change, it would mean delays for a dozen small western county developments totaling 226 planned homes, said county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who briefed builders and residents on the new numbers during separate meetings this week.

Although Rutter, David C. Drown, the school official who produces the charts, and several members of a citizens committee on school crowding said Howard is making progress toward more accurate enrollment predictions, some disagree.

The charts show that revised projections since the fall will change the open or closed status of 10 elementary schools and three middle schools. In late September, Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary was predicted to have 413 pupils in 2005 -- slightly under capacity. But the draft chart revealed this week shows the school with 511 pupils that year -- 118 percent of capacity.

Hammond Elementary in the southeastern county jumped from a September prediction of 562 pupils in three years to 696 -- which is 138 percent of capacity.

Drown said that a combination of redistricting and homes being built in east Columbia changed Jeffers Hill's outlook, while at Hammond "there was lots of housing we didn't put in."

Drown said methods have been refined since September, with more details about housing and a slightly different ratio of children per home in fast-growing areas that has changed predictions.

"We have a better grip on the housing data," Drown said.

"We can always make it better," he told a small group of citizens late yesterday.

The county is using a blend of statistical methods for making enrollment predictions, Drown said, but the key is much more detailed housing information and much closer cooperation between school and county planning officials.

"Is that really happening, for both sides?" asked Rosemary Mortimer, a committee member who represents the county's PTA Council.

Mortimer recalled trying to convince school officials in 1986 that 110 home foundations in Clary's Forest should be taken into account in estimating school enrollments.

"I'm very impressed," builder Jim Schulte said about the current level of cooperation. "We couldn't have had this conversation 10 years ago."

Schulte said that was because school officials would not explain their figures.

Builder Donald Reuwer, who plans to erect three detached homes in the Hammond Elementary district, disagreed.

"You make a business decision based on the predictability that's supposed to be in that chart, and there is no predictability in that chart," Reuwer said. "I predict the numbers will be just as screwed up as last time. The school board is incapable of producing figures that have any reliability. They're incompetent."

Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co. and another committee member, did not attend yesterday's meeting.

However, Rutter reported Scavo's concern that the county has no plans for new classroom seats beyond 2006, while the new Thornton Commission statewide education reform act will require at least 63 new classrooms for all-day kindergarten, which would also reduce the rated capacity of nearly every elementary school.

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