Panel discusses ordinance on public facilities

Law called insufficient to aid crowded schools

APFO a `piece of the problem'

Cash flow, faulty figures seen as bigger issues

Howard County

March 18, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A panel of Howard County education leaders, developers, activists and public officials met last night to discuss ways to improve the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), a widely criticized law that tries to curb school crowding by slowing housing development.

"I don't even really know if APFO has ever worked," said school board member Courtney Watson. "We have so many schools that are overcrowded."

APFO, among other things, restricts construction for up to four years in areas where schools are projected to be 15 percent or more over capacity three years in the future.

The County Council annually adopts a chart showing areas that are open or closed to development based on APFO.

Critics say the measure is not doing enough to help crammed schools, which are redistricted nearly every year in an effort to balance enrollment.

But some last night said that the real problem is not APFO, but cash flow, which does not allow the building of facilities at the rate they are needed.

"APFO is a much smaller piece of the problem here," said panel member Barbara Cook, the county solicitor. "We have a revenue problem here."

Marsha McLaughlin, Howard's interim planning director, said the county will request $70 million in bond funding for the coming fiscal year's capital budget -- $53 million less than has been requested.

The school system will have to take major cuts in its proposed capital budget of $87.9 million, McLaughlin said, and she has no idea what will happen the following year, when the schools request is expected to jump to $112 million.

A bothersome unknown to the committee is the full effect of state-mandated full-day kindergarten, which must be put in place by 2007.

David C. Drown, the school system's enrollment projections chief and member of the APFO committee, said at least 70 new classrooms will be needed to accommodate the young pupils, at a cost of about $24 million.

The school system is planning to start phasing in full-day kindergarten next year, first by adding temporary classrooms at the county's lowest-performing schools, then at schools with additions scheduled in 2005, followed by all others in 2006.

Best counting system

The committee asked Drown to work up capacity percentages based on the kindergarten changes to help it show county officials the impact on the development chart.

Drown was also asked to determine the best way to count schoolchildren in the future without wreaking havoc on the system.

Applications for new housing are not allowed now because of the enrollment numbers projected for 2005 for 13 county schools, with the highest concentration being in the western region, where areas around five of the seven elementary schools are closed to development.

A large part of the law's problem is that it relies on individual school enrollment projections to shut off construction.

The numbers often are faulty and may never improve because the sample size is too small to offer statistical confidence, Drown has said.

Information given to the committee two weeks ago also shows development to be less a contributor to school crowding than the resale of existing homes, which supplies 57 percent of the county's approximately 1,000 new students each year.

"It all ain't coming from new development," said Alton J. Scavo, executive vice president of the Rouse Co. "You can stop [development], and it's still not going to solve the problem."

About half of Maryland's counties -- including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford -- have some sort of APFO in place to slow development until school facilities can be made adequate, though the measures vary.

Next development chart

The next development chart is expected to be adopted in July, too soon for any changes to be implemented in the law. But committee members said they would continue the process, and with any luck, come up with solutions that can be added later as amendments.

The next meeting is scheduled for April 1.

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