Big tab for new schools forecast

Cost of building 6 put at up to $190 million

Fiscal implications `daunting'

Estimate follows proposal to alter capacity gauge

Carroll County

March 31, 2004|By Hanah Cho and Jennifer McMenamin | Hanah Cho and Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County would need $150 million to $190 million to build at least six schools to accommodate students if the county adopts proposed school capacity standards recommended by a growth task force.

That prospect was presented yesterday to the county commissioners by Steven C. Horn, the county planning director.

An additional $12 million would be needed annually to cover debt service, and $16 million more would be required annually for operating costs, according to an analysis prepared by Ted Zaleski, the county budget director.

Steven Powell, the county chief of staff, called the fiscal implications "daunting," especially because no revenue sources exist to cover such large capital expenses and operating costs.

The analysis followed recommendations from a growth task force that was formed after the county commissioners imposed a yearlong freeze on residential development.

The task force recommended that the county adopt the Carroll County Board of Education's school capacity standards as part of proposed revisions to the county's adequate public facilities law. The law is designed to prevent residential growth from overwhelming schools, roads, the water supply and police, fire and medical services.

The county's current adequate facilities law calls for projected school enrollment of 120 percent or less of capacity, a threshold used by the county to determine whether to allow new development.

In September 2002, the school board changed the way it rated school capacity levels to a three-tiered system to help the county in its development review process.

Under this system, a school would be deemed "adequate" if the enrollment was up to 100 percent of capacity; "approaching inadequate" for enrollment between 101 percent and 105 percent of capacity for elementary schools and between 101 percent and 110 percent for secondary schools; and "inadequate" for elementary schools with enrollment greater than 105 percent of capacity and for secondary schools with enrollment greater than 110 percent of capacity.

If the school board's standards were adopted today, 11 of the county's 22 elementary schools would be rated inadequate by 2009, according to Zaleski's analysis.

His report is based on capacity and enrollment figures compiled by the county planning department. One middle school and three high schools also would be deemed inadequate by 2009, the report said.

Based on that forecast, the county would need six additional schools in the near future, the report said.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich noted that the commissioners' request to impose a tax on real estate transactions to help it meet increased demand on government services, including schools, was rejected by the state Assembly delegation this year.

The revenue from the transfer tax, estimated at $5 million annually, "does not even begin to touch on the issue," Powell said.

"We may need to look at ... implementing this over time in order to effectively manage cost implications the [proposed] standards would place on the county," said Powell. He said county staff will return to the commissioners in the coming weeks with possible options and other cost scenarios.

Stephen Guthrie, the school system's assistant superintendent of administration, said the school board's function in setting standards of adequacy and inadequacy in terms of schools' enrollments differs from that of the county, which would use such standards to approve or reject proposals for housing developments.

"Our orientation is different from the county's," he said yesterday. "We're looking at what functionally we can handle as a school system from an educational standpoint. Obviously, we have to have an eye on costs, but, more importantly, we have to have our eye on what we think the schools can handle in terms of capacity."

The county report also said that adopting the school board's standards would reduce state school construction money, not increase it. To qualify for maximum state funding, a school system must show that existing schools are so crowded that a new school would be at capacity within seven years of the system's request for money, said Raymond Prokop, the school system's facilities director.

If a county and its school system start plans for a new school before it has enough students to qualify for state participation, the county pays a larger share of the cost of building the school.

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