School officials ponder growth

Meeting today on impact of enrollment's steady rise

System's needs to be prioritized

Call for smaller classes adds to fiscal burden

Carroll County

August 25, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

With the start of a new school year only days away, Carroll County officials are already looking a decade ahead at enrollment projections they say will continue to tax a school system that is being pushed to its limits.

The prospect of steady enrollment increases - plus the state's mandate for full-day kindergarten and push to calculate school capacities with smaller classroom sizes - leaves school officials grappling with financial burdens as they strive to meet their No. 1 goal: educating children.

"The major issue is to continue to provide adequate classroom and core facility spaces to meet the needs of students - to provide a safe, orderly [and comfortable] learning environment," said Harry Fogle, assistant superintendent of school management.

At a meeting today with school board members, county commissioners and state delegates, school officials plan to revamp their list of priorities to try to strike a balance between what schools need and the available funding.

"Someone said it's like making a choice between water and air. You have to make big decisions while giving a nod to reality, to what's likely to happen," said Ray Prokop, the school system's facilities director.

County school officials have projected an enrollment of 29,257 students this year, up from 28,828 last year, according to Dave Reeve, supervisor of transportation services. Schools open Monday.

Tough balancing act

"Year to year, we may have less of an increase, but it's still an increase. That's what we see for the next 10 years, and that's confirmed by all the potential residential development that's in the pipeline," Reeve said.

The challenges that growth creates for the school system are similar to ones faced by other public services such as fire and police protection, Reeve said.

"You're stretched to your limits and you have to do something," he said. "But with public schools, we can't say, `You can't come here.'"

That leaves school officials wrestling with problems ranging from crowded schools to maintaining aging buildings, while dealing with shrinking funds.

"Increased enrollment means that we have schools that will be filling up in every pocket of this county, and it means overcrowded conditions while we consider what to do," said Steve Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration.

Because state school officials stress capacity as a priority, local officials must put remedies for crowded schools at the top of the list.

But the need to build additions or new schools to accommodate more students means less money for upgrading existing facilities. The result is that these projects continue to be pushed to the back burner because the paramount concern is providing enough room to accommodate more students, officials said.

Meanwhile, the state has budgeted $100 million annually for the next five years for school construction. Last year, $400 million was requested by the state's school districts, Guthrie said.

"What happens is everybody gets a little bit, but nowhere near what they require," he said.

At today's meeting, officials hope to reach a consensus about school priorities.

"This will be a broad, far-reaching discussion regarding facilities," said C. Scott Stone, school board president. Stone added that the board sorely needs a comprehensive review of what school officials require and what is available in terms of funding.

"This is a compromise," Stone said.

With information from county and state officials, school board members hope to prioritize their needs based on a realistic estimate of funding. The board will be able to say, "Here's what we need and we have this much money," he said.

Stone recalled that in the late 1990s, the school board faced an overwhelming list of school projects. In a search for solutions, the board directed the school superintendent to form a committee with the county commissioners to hammer out an affordable plan. He said a similar effort is needed again.

Board consensus vital

A key factor in setting priorities will be reaching agreement among the school board members on such questions as the optimum size of schools.

"We need to talk about this and come to consensus or significant movement," Stone said.

He said board members will also be able to ask questions about such issues as school redistricting and how the facilities department addresses school crowding.

"A lot of information will be presented" at today's meeting, he said. "We want to deal with all the related issues in one setting."

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