Opening school district decried

Questions remain over middle school population

Debate over projections

Enrollment figures used to permit development

December 07, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

News that the Southampton Middle School district will be opened for housing development next month has created a stir among school and county officials, as well as parents, who say they question the enrollment projections on which the move is based.

The news is the latest in a 2-year-old debate in the county about school crowding and how enrollment is projected. Last year, the school system moved hundreds of pupils from Southampton Middle to Fallston, Bel Air and North Harford middle schools to decrease a pupil population that had swelled to more than 2,000, nearly 500 over capacity.

Now, according to the latest enrollment figures from the school administration, Southampton's population is just over 100 percent of capacity - but 11 portable classrooms remain on the campus.

"What gives?" said County Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican who represents the Bel Air area, which includes Southampton. "The numbers aren't making a lot of sense."

One thing officials and parents agree on is that the problem hasn't gone away. It's been shifted primarily to Fallston Middle School, where pupil population increased to nearly 130 percent of capacity after the redistricting.

"We'll just keep shifting them back and forth," Cassilly said. "That's not at all the resolution I think it should be."

The latest figures, issued in November after the schools' Sept. 30 enrollment figures were released, showed Southampton's projected school enrollment for the 2005-2006 school year is 99 percent of capacity. In the 2002 growth report, issued this year, that same figure was projected to be 120 percent.

That discrepancy troubles officials, including Board of Education Vice President Robert Thomas, who said he is anxious to get a full briefing from school officials.

"I am concerned at how development can be reopened [around] a school nearly surrounded by portables," he said. "There's obviously something wrong with this process."

The opening for development was made public Tuesday night at the Harford County Council meeting by Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat representing the Joppa and Edgewood areas.

"It just boggles my mind," he said in sharing information from the planning department.

The building moratorium in the Southampton district went into effect in 1999, said Pete Gutwald of the county Department of Planning and Zoning. He said that no development proposals are on waiting lists for preliminary plan approval at this time.

According to 2002 data from the department, about 3,430 building permits were issued in the school district from 1997 to 2002 - the highest number of any school district in the county. During part of that time, the moratorium on development was in effect, but it did not stop projects already in the works.

Gutwald explained that the county could not curtail projects in the district that had recorded lots or had received preliminary plan approval before the moratorium went into effect.

David Craig, assistant principal at Southampton, said the reopening for development is surprising news. He said he tracks fifth-graders preparing to attend Southampton and is aware of 50 more pupils due to enter sixth grade next year than did this year.

The seventh-grade class, however, is fairly small, he said, and the resulting population change at the school from this year to next is just one pupil.

Problems with enrollment projections were studied by the Harkins Commission on School Construction, assembled after County Executive James M. Harkins announced plans last year to seek construction of a new middle-high school complex on Patterson Mill Road, south of Bel Air, to relieve crowding in the central county.

John O'Neill, county director of administration and vice president of the commission, said the panel recommended closer coordination between school officials and planners in creating enrollment projections. He said that might explain some of the discrepancies.

Still, he said, the new figures came as a surprise, especially with the county committing to a new school and renovations and additions to others in the area. "My immediate reaction was to raise an eyebrow," O'Neill said.

The adequate public facilities task force, convened earlier this year by the County Council to study growth, found problems in the method of counting students, too, said Valerie Twanmoh, a task force member.

"I've never heard anyone explain that formula in a way that any reasonable person can understand," she said.

Other officials echoed that sentiment, including Cassilly, who said he has requested that the planning department draft a memorandum of understanding of sorts to spell out in detail why and how certain figures are used - and who is responsible for determining each figure.

More accountability is needed between the planning department and the school administration, he said, adding that he hopes Harkins will step in and delay the district's opening to development until the varying numbers can be resolved.

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