Schools' no-build formula stalls

Council fails to approve plan to increase districts closed to development

`It's going to have to pass'

Proposed ban would put 13 more areas off-limits

Anne Arundel

May 23, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

A plan to expand the number of Anne Arundel County school districts closed to development has stalled at the County Council, where members have raised numerous questions about a planning measure they helped shape.

At its last two meetings, the council has passed on chances to put its final stamp on the plan, which would expand the building ban from four to five high school districts and from 27 to 39 elementary school districts for up to six years. The county has 12 high school districts and 77 elementary school districts. Its next chance to vote is June 7.

Council members have raised numerous concerns about the plan. Some have said they can't fathom closing another 13 school districts to development when county schools overall have thousands of unfilled seats. Some don't understand the way the plan measures enrollment. Some don't like that slightly crowded schools are treated the same as extremely crowded ones. Some say school districts that should be on the no-build list aren't.

They're also caught between developers who say the plan is severe, and parents who say it doesn't offer long-term solutions to crowding.

Council members say they can't win: They cannot alter the plan, only pass it or kill it.

"Ultimately, it's going to have to pass," said Council President Edward C. Middlebrooks of the no-build list. "But we're darned if we do and we're darned if we don't."

Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, put a more glum spin on the situation: "I think we've created a Frankenstein. We might have to take it out back and shoot it."

Developers certainly wouldn't mind. They believe the formula for school capacity is rife with problems and fails to maximize existing empty seats.

"It doesn't do anybody any good to close [to development] schools that are actually under capacity but are just being miscounted," said Michael DeStefano, president of Sturbridge Homes, one of the county's largest residential builders.

DeStefano said a 30-home subdivision being built by Sturbridge would be halted because Shady Side Elementary is, based on the formula, over capacity. He said the school is only over capacity because the formula doesn't account for resource rooms that could be used as classrooms.

School officials and county attorneys have defended the plan, saying it's important for the county to apply general standards to all schools.

DeStefano said builders are used to building restrictions created by school crowding but that the new plan is extreme.

"It has an impact on almost everybody, and if it doesn't have a direct impact today, it will have a direct impact tomorrow," DeStefano said.

Under the new plan, approved by the county Board of Education last month, the feeder districts for Arundel, Broadneck, Glen Burnie, Northeast and Old Mill high schools would be closed. All but Glen Burnie were closed under the old system.

The county has traditionally used state standards for school capacity to determine whether building should continue in a given district. But amid questions about the formula and complaints from developers that there was no end to restrictions, the County Council passed a new set of standards last year. The council required the school board to develop its own capacity standards.

The school board lowered the standard for kindergarten from 22 pupils per teacher to 18 pupils per teacher. The board also lowered the standards for first and second grade and tweaked the way it projects enrollment. That formula produced a list of school districts closed to development, but as a concession to builders, those districts cannot be closed for more than six years.

Council members said their dissatisfaction with the plan is indicative of greater concerns about the county's planning policies. "This isn't doing everything I want it to," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, at a work session last week.

Beidle and others complained that they're asked to make decisions without sufficient data on projected growth. Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, called on County Executive Janet S. Owens to pay for a database of planned development.

"Until the administration is willing to fund that critical first element ... the council can't determine what's rational, because we don't have the data," she said.

Samorajczyk said she would like a system that alerts county officials to potential crowding years in advance so that they could build new schools or renovate old ones before capacity crises arise.

But the plan up for vote isn't designed to address such sweeping problems, said Joe Rutter, the county planning director.

"All this does is clamp down on the areas that can be developed, I would say pretty significantly," Rutter told council members.

The county could address its crowding problems by stepping up spending on new school construction. But that idea irks council members from the northern part of the county, where growth has slowed and renovation is more of a priority than construction.

The county could also try to make better use of its existing capacity through redistricting, but council members know redistricting could be a political disaster.

The one salvation of the plan, council members said, is that it's scheduled to be revised in a year and could be changed even sooner.

"Maybe we just need to pass the chart ... and then go back and make revisions to tighten up the ordinance," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican. "I don't have a perfect solution. This may be one of those issues that's just unsolvable."

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