Officials focus on crowded schools

New Bel Air facility, additions to Fallston Middle among ideas

`No more room at the inn'

Bill to stop development of homes halted for study

Harford County

April 20, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

As the Harford County public school system begins its annual capital budget deliberations, all eyes are focusing on crowded classrooms.

"Our priorities are for a new middle-high school in the Bel Air area and to do something about the overcrowding at the Fallston Middle School," said Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for operations.

Licata's comment came the day after school board member Robert B. Thomas Jr. of Joppatowne proposed closing the doors to new pupils at Fallston Middle School, which is nearly 30 percent over capacity.

Speaking at last week's school board meeting, Thomas said: "Word ought to go forth that if you buy a new house in the Fallston area or move into a house, your kids are not going to Fallston. They can go to North Harford or some other school. There is no more room at the inn."

Another board member, Ruth R. "Robin" Rich, said she and her colleagues must look for ways to address the crowding. "We, honestly, must deal with this," she said. "If you have an overcrowded school it is difficult for students to learn."

Rich, who represents the North Harford area, suggested the board consider a split schedule where some pupils would attend class in the morning, others later in the day.

After the meeting she said, "That's just an idea, an option to be considered. We need to do something for the kids now, not three years from now."

According to school system records, Fallston Middle School has been overcrowded since the 1996-1997 school year, with the exception of the 1999-2000 school year when attendance dropped to 99.5 percent of capacity.

The overcrowding is projected to last at least until 2010 and in many years enrollment will exceed capacity by 13 percent to 25 percent.

"I agree with Mr. Thomas," said Licata. "Something has to be done."

Licata said the construction of the combined middle and high school in the Bel Air area is key to reducing overcrowding throughout a major part of the county.

"It is absolutely critical that we have this," he said of a school complex that could cost in the range of $38 million to $44 million.

Licata said Fallston got the school system's attention this year "because of the public outcry. Parents of students there have been very vocal recently."

A small gathering of Fallston residents, including Kevin Mayhew and DeLane Lewis, attended a meeting of the County Council last month and accused council members of not taking a leadership role in reducing school crowding.

They complained about the 10 portable classrooms parked behind the school.

Mayhew and Lewis voiced their support for legislation proposed by Councilman Dion F. Guthrie that would change the county's Adequate Public Facilities law as it relates to schools. Guthrie's proposal would halt new housing construction in a school district once the school's capacity exceeded 100 percent.

The current law calls for housing development to stop when a school's enrollment reaches 120 percent of capacity.

"The current law is not working at all," said Guthrie. "That's why Fallston and other schools are so overcrowded."

The legislation is on hold while a task force studies its possible impact on the county's economy.

Peter Gutwald, chief of comprehensive planning at the County Office of Planning and Zoning, said the current law shut down preliminary approval for new housing in the Fallston area July 1.

But as of Jan. 31, he said, there were 516 homes in the pipeline waiting to be built.

Of this number, he said 268 houses have approval for construction and "are good to go." The other 248 houses could still get final approval and be built under the current law.

To make way for the new students coming from these homes, Licata said the school board is considering several options, including building the portions of Fallston Middle School that were not constructed because of budget restraints in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That could include the construction of classrooms that would connect two wings of the school. Connecting the wings would also improve the flow of pupils through the halls as they change classes.

Licata said proposed improvements could get the capacity figure at Fallston "down to a little less than 100 percent, perhaps to the 90 to 95 percent range."

"There are times when I'm scared to death," said Licata. "The needs of the students keep mounting. The growth in the county continues. The kids keep coming and the money is dwindling. I understand Mr. Thomas' frustration when he says, `Let's slam the doors.'"

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