Parents give County Council an earful on school crowding

Nine tapped to study adequate facilities laws

March 16, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Frustrated parents, concerned about crowding in Harford County public schools, clashed recently with lawmakers in one of the more lively County Council sessions of the past five years.

"Some sparks were flying," Councilman Lance C. Miller, who represents the northern part of the county, said of Tuesday's meeting. "At least it is not boring anymore."

Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp was a little embarrassed the day after the session. "I'm afraid I got a little emotional last night," she said. "It is frustrating when people come in and throw rocks at you. We're doing the best job we can do."

The fireworks were launched near the end of the two-hour council meeting when Kevin Mayhew, a resident of Fallston, said it was sad to see that Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith "was not taking a leadership role" in reducing crowding in schools.

Mayhew was one of three parents who complained about the serious crowding at Fallston Middle School, in Chenowith's district. The school has 30 percent more pupils than it was designed to handle. Pupils are forced to take some classes in portable classrooms behind the main school building.

"The leadership of this council is not directing the growth of the county," Mayhew told the gathering. "Outsiders are directing it," he said, referring to the influence of developers.

The more lively discussion came after Council President Robert S. Wagner called the meeting to an end. It went on for another 45 minutes.

At one point Stepp stood behind her council desk and, in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the room, said, "What do you want us to do, raise taxes?"

In the back of the room Miller and Mayhew were going head to head.

To one side Chenowith was debating with DeLane Lewis, who had complained about the crowding of Fallston Middle School in her neighborhood.

At the front of the room a shouting match broke out between Stepp and Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who has proposed legislation to halt housing construction to reduce school crowding.

"We were yelling, but it was not in anger," said Stepp. "I have a great respect for Dion.

"It was a result of frustration and emotion. I wanted him to see my point. He wanted me to see his point. I felt like getting him in a headlock to make him listen."

"I didn't get us into this mess," Stepp told Guthrie. "It took a long time for us to get into this mess, and it's going to take a long time to correct it."

Guthrie dropped a political bombshell this month when he proposed legislation that would change the county's Adequate Public Facilities laws so that they would halt housing construction in any area where enrollment in public schools exceeds 100 percent of the school's designed capacity.

The current law halts construction when a school's capacity tops 120 percent.

Guthrie later agreed to hold up on the legislation - at least temporarily - to allow a newly appointed task force to study the impact of such a bill on the county. The study is to be completed by Sept. 30.

"Schools and development are a hot issue," said Miller. "It's very emotional."

During his sparring with Mayhew, Miller said he was opposed to any moratorium on housing construction.

Mayhew accused Miller of making up his mind before the task force even begins its work.

Lewis said she is not against growth. "But I want growth that makes sense."

She expressed doubt that she accomplished anything during her discussion with Chenowith. "I will just have to wait and see how she votes" on any proposal to limit growth," said Lewis.

Chenowith didn't let the criticism of her role on the council bother her. "I'm a tough old bird," she said. "I asked to go into the kitchen. If you can't take the heat, you shouldn't be there."

"They got us fired up," Stepp said of the citizen who commented on the need to address the county school situation. "There were attacking us, perceiving that we were not doing our jobs. That hurt."

Stepp said she had not seen such an outburst at a council meeting since she was elected in 1998.

"It was terrific that the council members stayed around to talk," she said.

Miller characterized it this way: "It was healthy debate, but at times it got hostile. Sparks were flying, but it's good to air things out."

Earlier in the evening, when tempers were still calm, the council approved a slate of nine people to serve on the adequate public facilities task force.

They include: Guthrie and Richard Slutzky, from the council; Jacqueline C. Haas, superintendent of schools; Mark M. Wolkow, from the Board of Education; Deb Merlock of the Harford County Council of PTAs; and John Scotten Jr., deputy treasurer.

Others are: Anthony McClune, acting director of planning and zoning; Susan S. Davies of the Home Builders Association of Maryland; and Valerie Twanmoh of Friends of Harford, a citizen group interested in land use.

The group's first meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 25 in the council chamber.

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