Guthrie pushes crowding provision

Councilman wants to remove sunset rule on facilities law

School capacity set to increase to 115%

August 21, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who led the 13-month effort to change the county's adequate public facilities law to ease crowding in public schools, is fighting an uphill battle to keep the law on the books.

Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, has introduced a bill that would remove the sunset provision on the legislation passed in October 2004. That provision halts the preliminary approval of new housing construction in any school district with a school exceeding capacity by 5 percent.

The adequate public facilities legislation - commonly referred to as APF - was designed to help alleviate crowding in schools that had up to 30 percent more students than they were designed to accommodate.

Concerned parents who jammed the council chambers during public hearings on the bill said such crowding was detrimental to learning. They said it threatened students' safety and led to more fights.

Parents also complained that crowding resulted in the use of more portable classrooms, and that some teachers were holding classes in hallways.

Guthrie wants to avoid such scenarios in the future.

Removing the sunset provision - which kills the law in summer 2007 - would force the council coming in after next year's election to pass a new bill, Guthrie said.

"If we do nothing, school capacity automatically jumps to 115 percent when the current law sunsets," he said. That means preliminary approval for new housing would be stopped only when a school exceeded its capacity by 15 percent.

But these numbers are misleading, Guthrie says. "When capacity was set at 120 percent, we had schools that were 30 [percent] and 40 percent over capacity, because there were so many housing approvals already in the pipeline that couldn't be stopped," he said.

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, who heads an APF task force set up by the council, said the law has served its purpose and will not be needed after it sunsets.

By the time the APF provision is set to expire, Slutzky said, construction of the new Patterson Mill middle and high school complex will be nearing completion.

"That will solve the big crisis," he said. "It will reduce the capacity at five schools: C. Milton Wright, Southampton Middle, Fallston Middle, Bel Air Middle and Bel Air High."

Slutzky, a former teacher and wrestling coach at Aberdeen High, introduced the sunset amendment to the APF bill as a compromise with former County Executive James M. Harkins to move the Patterson Mill project ahead.

In a process called forward funding, the county is paying the full cost of the $59 million Patterson Mill complex with the hope - but no guarantee - that the state will chip in its traditional 50 percent of the price later.

Slutzky said the problem with the 105 percent threshold is that the state historically does not consider approving financing for a new school unless the capacity of existing schools is 115 percent or more.

"If we keep the number low, we may never get state financing for Patterson Mill or other schools in the planning stages," he said.

Residents will get the chance to express their thoughts on the APF proposal at a public hearing in the council chambers scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 6.

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