Bill may threaten opening of school

Zoning legislation would limit charters in residential areas

July 24, 2005|By Liz F. Kay and Phillip McGowan | Liz F. Kay and Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

A Glen Burnie charter school's plans to open next month may be in jeopardy after the Anne Arundel County Council passed a zoning ordinance restricting charter schools in residential neighborhoods.

The legislation, which will take effect once County Executive Janet S. Owens signs it, permits charter schools as a "conditional use" on residentially zoned land. To open there, schools must meet certain requirements, such as resting on a lot 3 acres or larger.

But organizers of Chesapeake Science Point, a math, science and technology charter, have begun renovations of a building leased from the Glen Burnie Korean Presbyterian Church to meet county and school system requirements. The property, which is in a residential zone, measures a little more than a half-acre.

Al Aksakalli, Chesapeake Science Point's project manager, said the school is consulting its legal counsel but declined to elaborate.

"We're investigating its implications, whether it's applicable to us or not," he said. "Afterward, we'll come up with a plan of action."

Confusion over the zoning of charter schools arose after the county's first comprehensive overhaul of land-use policies in three decades took effect in May. The zoning revisions didn't address charter schools.

County Attorney Linda Schuett said any use of property not mentioned in the regulations would be prohibited.

In other words, the county had unknowingly blocked some charter schools from coming into existence - in direct conflict with the state's charter school law.

"In the absence of doing something, they wouldn't be allowed," Schuett said. "That wasn't acceptable."

Traditional public schools were made exempt from the zoning ordinances by the land-use overhaul, but the school system works closely with the county planning office to determine where to put new facilities.

If county officials denied permits to charter schools because they were not allowed under the zoning code, they feared the Maryland State Board of Education might step in and require the county to yield.

"I'm not about to have the state board tell us to put charter schools where we don't want them. ... We shouldn't let that happen," Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, said Monday night before the council passed the zoning ordinance, 6-1.

Owens has 10 days to sign the emergency act. Non-emergency legislation becomes law after 45 days.

Under the bill, charter schools would be treated like private schools - permitted without extra approvals in commercial, industrial and mixed-use zones. But in less-dense residential areas, charters would need to meet the conditional use requirements.

However, charter-school advocates disagreed with the council's reasoning, saying proposed charter schools - publicly funded though operated independently from some school system oversight - undergo a rigorous application process to ensure they have appropriate facilities and location.

"Both the county and the state have the final say in that process," said Will DuBois, an attorney and board member of the Maryland Charter Schools Network. "I do not see the logic in discriminating among public schools this way."

Other areas of the country have used zoning laws to block charter schools, said Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

Board approval

School board members approved contracts with Chesapeake Science Point and KIPP Harbor Academy in May. Both schools face a number of state and local deadlines for technical items, such as approval of their buildings, to open in the fall.

KIPP, which hopes to help students from historically underperforming communities, began its summer session this month with its first class of fifth-graders at Annapolis Area Christian School. Principal B. Jallon Brown said the school would not be affected by the bill but would not comment on specific details of the location.

Andy Smarick, a board member of KIPP Harbor Academy, said the legislation was "the biggest hurdle to starting up charter schools."

Smarick said that these schools draw on their operational funds to purchase land, and that the requirement for them to purchase 3 acres would strain their budgets.

County Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, said the council was "sympathetic" to Smarick's pleas and that the council would be receptive to amending the legislation if the regulations proved prohibitive for these start-up schools.

In echoing the concerns of the Owens administration, however, Reilly said the council could not afford to wait to pass the legislation in its current form.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, said at the meeting that charter schools could settle on sites smaller than 3 acres by applying for a variance. The process of getting a variance, if challenged, could last months if not years.

County Councilman Bill D. Burlison, a vociferous opponent of charter schools, voted against the bill and urged his colleagues to follow suit to send the state a message.

"We need to place the onus on the state ... and help educate the public as to what we are getting into [on charter schools]," the Odenton Democrat said.

Burlison, who on Monday night twice equated charter schools to "a monster," said again that these institutions create two separate county school systems with revenue demands that will compromise Anne Arundel's revenue-tax cap.

2004 bill

Last year, the County Council considered a bill restricting where private schools could open on land zoned for agricultural and residential uses, worried that they would bring increased traffic to narrow roads.

DuBois, of the Charter Schools Network, said communities want the schools.

"It seems strange to talk about protecting residential communities from charter schools," he said.

DuBois described charter schools as community-based and, as a result, "the community is not going to shoot itself in the foot" by opposing them.

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