Council approves school charts

Projected enrollment still frustrates officials

`Left with no alternative'

Howard County

July 02, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Fed up with unreliable enrollment figures, frustrated Howard County Council members last night called for finding a new way to prevent crowded schools.

The comments came after the council unanimously, but unhappily, approved enrollment charts that determine where builders can go to work and where they must wait, based on projections for classroom crowding in 2005.

"This is just a very difficult vote for me. I don't have much confidence in these [enrollment] numbers. It may be time to look at other ways of doing this," said western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman.

He was referring to the council's required vote on charts that show - based on projected enrollments - which elementary and middle schools are over the 115 percent legal limit for crowding.

Those over the line trigger development delays in 2005, under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

The decade-old law was enacted to help control crowding in county classrooms, but years of inaccurate enrollment projections have forced numerous changes in school construction plans, upsetting parents, builders and elected officials.

That trend continued last night, as council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon expressed unhappiness with the system. No one, except Gray, suggested a specific alternative, however.

Gray and Merdon noted that the council has no real choice but to approve the charts supplied by school officials, because not to would cause "chaos," Gray said. He suggested giving the job to county planners, which prompted Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, to smile and vigorously shake his head "no."

"The current system doesn't work," Merdon said, adding that "we're really left with no alternative." If re-elected, he said, he would work to change what is now an "unacceptable" inaccuracy in enrollment numbers.

Failure to approve the charts would leave last year's chart in control, meaning that development could go on around schools now projected to be over capacity in 2005, while stopping it around schools where crowding has been eased. The three-year delay is supposed to give builders and the county time to make changes and relieve crowding.

"We all share real disappointment this year," Lorsung said, noting that there has been one good result - closer cooperation between county planners and school officials.

David C. Drown, the school official in charge of the projections, has said repeatedly that the figures are getting more accurate, and will be reliable by next year.

This year, the charts initially submitted had to be changed several times, moving three elementary schools into the closed-to-development category and one middle school the other way. Even more frustrating to the County Council was the final change - to place Worthington Elementary in the closed category - despite the scheduled opening of a new elementary school nearby in August 2003.

Drown said that despite plans to make school district boundary changes, Worthington is too far from the new school to gain immediate relief.

In other business, the council:

Approved going to condemnation to gain ownership of the remaining lots needed to build the 27-acre North Laurel Park. Kittleman and Merdon opposed condemnation on two lots, arguing that since those owners did not want to sell, taking their land is wrong. Democrats said that the park is for the public good and the only real dispute is over fair selling prices, which the courts can determine.

The condemnations cover 10 lots totaling 1.7 acres held by four owners. The Republicans approved condemnation for four lots, reasoning that the court action on them is needed to clear legal title, and that they are thus "friendly condemnations."

Defeated, 3-2, a resolution offered by Republicans Merdon and Kittleman calling for the county executive to submit a plan to replenish the Rainy Day Fund. Democrats argued that Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, has said he will do that anyway, so a resolution was not necessary.

Robey got authority to use just over half the $28 million fund this fiscal year to make up for revenue shortfalls in the year that ended June 30, although the exact amount needed will not be known until October.

Merdon and Kittleman also introduced a proposed charter amendment for the November election, asking voters to force the county to allot at least 0.5 percent of the general fund each year to the Rainy Day Fund, if the fund is not full. The charter change would allow the council to waive the requirement in difficult financial times.

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