School numbers still crucial in fiscal planning

Slower steady enrollment growth now seen as norm

Dip possible in 2001, if then

Spending panel ponders infrastructure repairs, too

Howard County

January 24, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Exactly four years ago, Howard County school officials said student enrollments would peak about now, and then would begin dropping off, lessening the need for expensive new schools - but no more.

School enrollment guru David C. Drown told the county's Spending Affordability Committee yesterday that slightly slower, but steady enrollment growth is the norm for now, with a possible decline in 2011 - if then.

"As you go out [in time], there's less and less comfort on that," Drown said.

Listening to Drown, school board member Virginia Charles whispered her take on the current theory.

"If you believe school enrollments will go down, I've got a bridge to sell you," she said.

Whether the county's growing school enrollment will ever peak is the group's major problem. But, it is not the only one the committee faces this year in trying to decide how much the county can afford to borrow next fiscal year to pay for new classrooms and repairs to roads, buildings, the courthouse and storm drains.

Before Drown's presentation, James M. Irvin, the public works director, talked about the rest of the growing unpaid bill for 35 years of fast growth.

"The county has matured in its infrastructure," Irvin said, noting that buildings, bridges and storm drains, like people, need to be maintained over time.

With the possibility of a budget deficit last year, for example, Irvin said his department received $300,000 to maintain and repair 850 miles of county roadways - instead of the typical $5 million, or the $16 million that is needed. With the intense cold this winter and the periodic thaws producing potholes, "this spring will be a real litmus test" for roadways, Irvin said.

Another $1 million a year is needed to maintain 15 county bridges. Additional money is needed to fix more than 300 storm-water ponds, storm drains and leaking roofs on 16 county buildings, including the Gateway building where the committee meeting took place.

County Executive James N. Robey must also decide whether to pay $3 million in local matching funds for sound barriers long sought to shield older communities along the southern section of U.S. 29. Ellicott City will get barriers along the highway, as part of a widening project. But if the county does not provide the 20 percent local match for the additional barriers, the 80 percent federal funding will go elsewhere, Irvin said.

Howard needs predictable annual amounts of money to enable planning for the repairs, not the peak-and-valley funding that has been the norm. "You can't fix all the roads in one year," he said.

The key to that planning is predicting the need for new schools - the biggest expense by far and the one people focus on most, though only 32 percent of county families have children in school.

Drown said he has been working for two years to make those enrollment projections more reliable, and should have a dependable new system by spring 2004. Currently, for example, he has no way of counting preschoolers or county babies born at hospitals outside Howard County.

"We haven't seen the decrease in Columbia that was predicted. We've not seen a peak. We may not reach a peak," said school board and committee member Courtney Watson.

Howard County schools enrollment is about 47,000 and grows about 1,000 a year. Watson organized the 1999 meeting of Ellicott City parents to push for a new northeast elementary school, only to hear Maurice F. Kalin, then associate schools superintendent, predict enrollment declines after 2003 and say no new school was needed.

With Bellows Spring Elementary opening in September and a request for a second Ellicott City-area elementary, Watson remains skeptical.

Jeff Bronow, the county's population expert, said growing enrollment is more likely because "Howard County schools have such a good reputation." Young families with children keep coming, often buying homes to take advantage of the top-rated school system. "You'll see schools continue to repopulate," he said.

With the school board using 107 portable classrooms now and requesting $86.3 million next year and state funding in decline, the chances of getting all that is needed are nil. Last year, the committee recommended borrowing no more than $50 million for all the county's capital needs.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, issued a warning as the meeting ended.

"You can see what happens in a place like Baltimore City when they don't take care of these things," he said.

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