Six schools projected to exceed capacity

Crowding could delay building homes in those areas

Hearing scheduled for tomorrow night

June 19, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Four elementary schools and two middle schools are projected to be at least 115 percent of capacity and might be designated as "closed" in 2008, delaying new-home construction in those areas.

The designations -- based upon the latest three-year enrollment projects by the Howard County school system -- will be the subject of a public hearing by the County Council tomorrow night.

The projections also show that the number of schools closed to development will be down from eight this year, and that overall enrollment will increase imperceptibly for almost 1 1/2 decades.

"It's better this year than it has been, and it should be better next year if the capital projects get approved," said David C. Drown, manager of school planning for the district.

The forecast, which is revised annually, covers only elementary and middle schools. The figures are used to help determine the district's building plans. More broadly, however, they are part of the adequate-facilities regulations, which delay or prevent developers from constructing subdivisions in areas in which schools are crowded.

"It's an early warning system that tells us where we're going to need additional capacity," said Drown.

The elementary schools that are recommended to be closed to development are Manor Woods, Bryant Woods, Bellows Spring and Elkridge. School officials also propose the designation for Patapsco and Glenwood middle schools. Of those six schools, only Manor Woods and Patapsco Middle School are closed to development now.

Enrollment at the elementary and middle school levels in three years will remain flat, at about 32,000 students for the next three years, and increase by only about 2,000 by 2017, according to the forecast.

While a softening in enrollment has been expected, the trend does not mean an end to school construction. Additional space is needed, Drown said, because some schools are growing despite the flattening of overall enrollment. Growth is particularly evident in the western, north and northeastern regions of the county, he said. "We're behind right now," Drown said. "We have more students than seats."

The district's normal threshold for determining whether a school is closed -- meaning that developers may not build in that area until crowding has been reduced -- is operating at or above 115 percent of capacity.

That threshold, however, is not sacrosanct. Centennial Lane Elementary, for instance, is still listed as an "open" school despite projections that it will be at 124 percent of capacity in three years.

The opening of a school in the northern region in 2007 and redistricting will relieve Centennial temporarily, Drown said.

In 2010, though, Centennial is expected to be operating at 132 percent of capacity and will be classified as "closed," he said.

He said he expects building programs to be proposed to assist Centennial and Elkridge elementary schools. Those are most likely to involve constructing additions to expand, not building new schools. Additions typically are four or more classrooms.

A new elementary school might be proposed next year to serve Turf Valley, the planned community in western Howard County, and to relieve crowding at Manor Woods, which serves the area.

The school system projects that in three years, enrollment at Manor Woods will increase to 809 pupils from 648 this year.

"What is really fueling [Manor Woods] is the Turf Valley neighborhood," Drown said. "That's a big project. We may look at a school out there" in the next capital budget.

It would take three years from budgeting for the school to completion, he said. The location of the school could be Turf Valley if sufficient land can be obtained from the developer or in the vicinity of the sprawling development.

The 800-acre development has 130 homes, 26 villas, a hotel and resort center and two golf courses. Zoning allows an additional 1,379 units, although the developer in the past has sought an increase in density, which would add about 121 more units.

Although the district projects enrollment well into the future, it relies on short-term forecasts.

"Our critical window is three years. It's very important because basically that is the same time for capital projects -- the planning, funding and building," Drown said.

"As you go further out in the future, the accuracy goes down," he said. "It's just like the weatherman -- he's pretty good within 24 hours; it gets to 76 hours, and he's not so good."

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