Classroom congestion is unrelenting

Despite money poured into new construction, school crowding persists

Elementaries a major problem

New buildings bring relief but allow more housing that exacerbates problem

Howard County

April 06, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite a record $94.7 million in proposed spending on school construction, classroom crowding remains among the thorniest problems in fast-growing Howard County.

A big chunk of that school construction money from the capital budget of County Executive James N. Robey is to pay for completing the new northern high school in Marriottsville, which is scheduled to open in August 2005. But elementary school crowding remains a problem in the western and northern county.

The available options present county officials with a series of dilemmas. Building a big, new western elementary school in Dayton will help, for example. But it will also reopen the region for the construction of 566 homes on a waiting list under county laws that slow development when schools are overburdened.

"We're in trouble," said Lucinda Peters, PTA president at Glenwood's Bushy Park Elementary in western Howard, the county's most crowded. The school proposed in Dayton won't take many children from Bushy Park, she said, while more new homes will add more children.

And in northern Howard, Robey's plan to delay building an elementary school between Ellicott City and Marriottsville will keep that region closed to new residential projects but will postpone a solution to that area's school crowding.

"We have our first-graders eating lunch at 10:45 a.m.," said P.J. Glennon, PTA president at 36-year-old Northfield Elementary in Ellicott City.

"Music class in the hallways is not something that parents like to see," she said. "We'd love to have a new northeast elementary school."

Leaving the northern county - which includes Hollifield, St. Johns, Northfield, Centennial, Waverly and Manor Woods elementaries - closed to development for another year also makes life difficult for builders.

There are 223 new homes on hold around Hollifield, with 16 more near Manor Woods and another 37 near Northfield, said Jeff Bronow, chief of research for the county planning department. Another 174 new homes are being delayed in Elkridge under the county's 11-year-old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. The law stops planning for new homes for up to four years when elementary or middle schools, or an entire region, are 115 percent or more over capacity.

Delaying the new elementary school will be "hard on the kids and hard on the [building] companies," said Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Still, county officials say they are making progress, and they expect to keep climbing - albeit slowly - toward solutions.

"It seems like we never have enough resources to get ahead of the game. We are making progress," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, who got involved in the issue during the 1990s as a young mother fighting for more classrooms in Ellicott City.

Popular county

Howard's school crowding problem lies in the county's popularity with homebuyers, particularly those with children. Despite sharply higher home prices, sometimes surpassing the half-million-dollar mark, "young families are buying them - young professionals making a lot of money" and often with three or four children, Watson said.

Robey has used surplus cash, matched by state school construction funding, to build more classrooms: He has added two high schools, and Folly Quarter Middle School in West Friendship, Bellows Spring Elementary in Ellicott City, a new Cedar Lane school, as well as major additions and renovations to a number of older buildings.

Still, as Howard builds new schools to catch up, county officials are increasingly aware of their older buildings and the need to maintain equity with renovations.

"Northfield Elementary was built in 1968," with an addition put on in 1986, said Carolan Stansky, past PTA president at the school. By the time a scheduled renovation occurs, "my fifth-grader will be a senior in high school."

Study suggested

That makes waiting for relief from crowding all the more difficult to stomach. The county should do an overall facilities study suggested in a schools audit several years back, Stansky said, and stop doing projects piecemeal.

The irony, noted David C. Drown, the school official who compiles the enrollment charts, is that "countywide, our elementary population is pretty flat," because the enrollment bulge is now in middle school, moving toward high schools.

The problem is that enrollments are growing in the west and north, which returns the focus to schools such as Bushy Park and Lisbon. Those rural schools use septic systems, and soil absorption problems prevent easy enlargement of either school, prompting a $1.4 million study, to be done next year.

Western county Republican Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller question the need for more expensive new schools, arguing that the county can't afford everything residents want.

Board criticized

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