Measure could suspend building

School crowding bill aims to control development

Lower enrollment cap sought

Some say more would stifle growth in county

February 29, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

A bill to be introduced Tuesday by County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie to address the problem of crowded schools would shut down the bulk of the southern half of Harford County to new housing development, according to county officials.

The move to tighten the county's adequate public facilities laws as they relate to school enrollment is Guthrie's second effort in as many years.

Last year he introduced similar legislation that was designed to help schools that were serving 15 percent to 20 percent more students than they were designed to handle.

His new bill would halt preliminary approval for new housing in any school district with a school that exceeds its enrollment capacity by more than 5 percent.

"We have a serious problem with our schools," said Guthrie. "They are too crowded, the classrooms are too big, they have too many students. This is not fair to the public. It's not fair to the teachers, but most of all, it's not fair to our students. It is not conducive to learning."

Guthrie said the bill is co-sponsored by five of the seven council members, enough to override a veto by County Executive James M. Harkins.

In addition to Guthrie, sponsors are council President Robert S. Wagner, Robert G. Cassilly, Richard C. Slutzky and Cecelia M. Stepp.

Council members Lance C. Miller and Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith are not co-sponsors.

Guthrie is the council's only Democrat; the other members are Republicans.

Pete Gutwald, manager of comprehensive planning in the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, said that if the bill is approved it will stop preliminary approval of new residential units "throughout most of the county's development envelope, where 80 percent of the growth occurs."

According to Guthrie, the bill would affect development in five of the county's eight high school districts.

Guthrie's bill is similar to one proposed two weeks ago in Baltimore County that was designed to ease school crowding there. Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties also have adequate public facilities laws that bar development in regions where schools are crowded.

Wagner has scheduled a council work session for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the council chamber to discuss the bill. The session will include representatives of the school system and the Department of Planning and Zoning.

"We will lock the doors and duke it out," Chenowith said of the work session, which will not include public comment.

"We can open the blinds and let some light in," said Guthrie, who said he hopes that participants in the session will see the need for change to address what is being called a crisis in the county's public school system.

Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas shocked council members last summer when she told them that when factoring in housing subdivision build-out, nearly every secondary school in the county would be overcrowded by the end of the decade.

School crowding has been the chief complaint of parents in the county in the past year. On numerous occasions, concerned parents filled the council chamber during public meetings, demanding action.

They frequently came with homemade signs bearing slogans such as "Harford County loves builders but not children."

During a hearing last year, Kevin Mayhew of Fallston told council members, "The people of this county are going to drag you kicking and screaming, whether you like it or not," to do something about the conditions of schools in the county.

Tina Janouris, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, welcomed the new effort to reduce class size. She said her organization, an umbrella group of county PTAs, "has long endorsed reducing the adequate public facilities threshold number to 105 percent."

"But a change in the APF law is just one cog in the wheel directed at reducing classroom size and crowded schools," Janouris said. She said the county must devote more money to the construction of new schools and the renovation of existing facilities.

In October the council approved legislation that reduced the school capacity threshold to 115 percent from 120 percent.

Guthrie called that change "a joke" and said it did not go nearly far enough to improve the quality of the county's schools.

He called his proposal a compromise. He wants schools to enroll no more than 100 percent of their designed capacity.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "Every public building has a sign on the wall saying how many people it can hold. If we exceed the capacity of the council chamber, the sheriff's deputy will make people wait outside. But it is OK to cram 20 percent more children in a school building.

"I don't understand that. It makes it more difficult for the teachers, and it makes it harder for the students to learn."

Clark Turner, president of Bel Air-based Clark Turner Cos., said the proposed changes in the APF laws would "have a huge impact" on the homebuilding industry.

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