Council seeks schools plan

Members want proposal to rectify all buildings over 110 percent capacity

Enrollment difficult to project

No new construction budgeted beyond 2007

July 06, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With no more new schools planned in Howard County beyond 2007, education officials are still projecting four buildings to be over 115 percent of capacity in 2009 -- but an impatient County Council is pressing for a plan to eliminate all crowded schools.

"If we come around to budget season again next year and that list of long-range capital projects looks empty, and we're still projecting schools over 115 percent, I'm not going to vote for your budget," council Chairman Guy Guzzone warned David C. Drown, the school system's demographer.

This year, Drown predicted that six schools -- Manor Woods, Bryant Woods, Bellows Spring and Elkridge elementaries, along with Glenwood and Patapsco middle schools -- would be over the crowding threshold in three years. That triggers delays in new development, but the delay built into the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance gives government time to make changes. In 2009, Manor Woods, Bryant Woods and Elkridge elementary schools and Patapsco Middle are expected to be over 115 percent.

The exchange at a council work session last week highlighted what has been a continuing source of tension between county government officials, who provide money for new classrooms, and school officials, who try to figure out how many will be needed.

Another councilman, veteran western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, repeated his previous solution -- adding two students per classroom.

That move, Drown said, would provide 4,172 more seats -- equal to five more schools.

"I personally don't think that would hurt," said Feaga, 73, "and it's not because I grew up a long time ago."

But Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, rejected that idea.

"Our class sizes are set at levels we believe are most effective. We have no plans to change class size," she said. "There is research showing that the lower the class sizes are, the more effective the instruction. It's one reason we're No. 1."

Watson said the board is just beginning the process of crafting a capital budget that will include the plans Guzzone wants -- including the board's more stringent goal of having no school enrollment over 110 percent of building capacity.

Despite years of discussions, consultants reports and research, predicting how many students each of the county's 70 schools will have three years into the future remains tricky.

School board rules can make that even more difficult. The board has begun insisting that the projections be based on board standards that prohibit redistricting students more than once every five years, and requiring that a school feed no less than 15 percent of its promoted students to the next level of middle or high school.

"We want to try to provide a familiar student body," Drown said, so children moving to a new school won't feel isolated.

But elected officials such as Guzzone -- one of two councilmen expected to run for county executive next year -- want both solid progress and a plan for ending crowding in every school.

Five years ago, 12 county schools were projected to be over 115 percent of capacity by 2003, compared with six by 2008.

But after planned elementary schools are opened in Dayton and Ellicott City and a larger Bushy Park elementary is built, the board has no new buildings in the capital plan.

Watson said that will change, however.

"We're just beginning our capital budgeting plan. We'll add capacity," she said.

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