NO MATTER HOW you calculate it - there is more than one way - enrollment in Harford County public schools is growing and this trend will continue.
Under an enrollment projection system approved by the Maryland Department of Planning, the county school situation seems manageable.
Although enrollment projections will vary greatly from school to school, the number of elementary-school pupils is expected to rise 4.5 percent during the next five years.
It is pretty much the same for the middle schools, which are expecting a 4.2 percent increase in pupils by 2008.
High school enrollment is projected to decline slightly. The high school population is expected to drop to 11,991 from the current enrollment of 12,066.
"These are our official enrollment counts for September 2002," said Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for operations. "They are important because they are the numbers the state uses for funding capital plans, including the construction of new schools." They also determine the amount of money coming from the state to pay for classroom education.
Under a second method of projecting school enrollment, which factors in housing development to a greater degree, the picture changes greatly.
"When the subdivision growth is factored in, elementary-school enrollment is projected to increase between 20 percent to 25 percent by 2008," Licata said.
He said the county's eight middle schools would have 25 percent to 30 percent more pupils in five years. The nine high schools would pick up 7 percent to 10 percent more students.
Licata noted that five high schools are handling 4 percent to 14 percent more students than their capacity.
The crowding of public schools has become a major issue in the county, second to the damage of Tropical Storm Isabel, County Executive James M. Harkins said recently.
It has been a topic of heated debate at County Council sessions and during meetings of a county task force established in March to consider changes in the county's adequate-public-facilities laws as they relate to schools.
Parents have been filling the council chamber during the past six months, unleashing their anger at council members about situations in which some schools are handling 20 percent or 30 percent more students than their capacity.
Parents argued that their children are being cheated on their education and are subject to increased violence because of school crowding.
Kevin Mayhew of Fallston told council members this year that "the people of this county are going to drag you kicking and screaming, whether you like it not" to do something about the conditions of schools in the county.
Their message was heard.
On Oct. 7, the council voted in favor of a bill that would stop the county's approval of preliminary plans for housing development in any school district when a school exceeds 115 percent of its capacity or is projected to exceed 115 percent in five years.
The council also passed legislation calling for forming a six-member advisory board that is to review the county's adequate-public-facilities laws and annual growth reports, and make recommendations to the council, if necessary, to keep housing development in line with school construction.
Passage of the two bills ended seven months of debate that started in March, when Councilman Dion F. Guthrie proposed legislation to match housing development with school capacity.
He proposed that the county stop issuing preliminary approval for housing development in any school district where a school exceeds its enrollment capacity.
At that time, the adequate-public-facilities laws were designed to halt residential development in school districts when a school's capacity topped 120 percent.
Guthrie argued that the old law was not working. As evidence of this, he pointed to the situation at Fallston Middle School.
Although enrollment was at almost 130 percent of capacity, Guthrie pointed out that housing construction continued as a result of projects that had been approved before the moratorium.
Guthrie's proposal was put on hold as the council appointed a nine-member task force to review and update the adequate-public-facilities laws.
In June, the council passed a resolution calling for a six-month moratorium on preliminary residential subdivision plans.
Council President Robert S. Wagner said the resolution reflects the wishes of the council and encouraged Harkins to approve it.
New school complex
Harkins rejected the resolution, but shortly after announced plans for the county to forward fund the construction of a $42.6 million middle and high school complex on Patterson Mill Road near Bel Air.
Forward funding means the county will pay the full cost of the school complex with hopes of obtaining the 50 percent normally paid by the state at a later date.
At the request of Harkins, the complex will be designed to accommodate 1,600 students, 900 in the high school and 700 in the middle school. The original plan called for a school for 1,050 students.
If everything goes as planned, the complex will open in 2007. It will be the first new high school in the county in almost 30 years.
The Patterson Mill complex is being designed to reduce the attendance at six other schools and give them room to grow, said Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for the school system.
Crowded schools that would benefit from the new complex include Bel Air Middle, Southampton Middle, Fallston Middle, Bel Air High, C. Milton Wright High and Fallston High.
The county has a commitment from the state to pay its portion of a $44 million expansion and renovation of North Harford High School, near Pylesville.
When work is completed, North Harford High will be 42 percent larger and have a capacity of 1,600 students, up from 1,450.