Adequate facilities debate resumes



The debate over balancing home construction and school enrollment continues this week when the County Council revisits a measure that would preserve limits on development in districts where crowded schools exist.

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie said he will reintroduce legislation at Tuesday's council meeting that would leave Harford's adequate public facilities law intact. The ordinance halts preliminary approval of new housing in districts that are home to a school exceeding its designed capacity by 5 percent. If the measure is left unaltered, the guideline increases to 15 percent in June 2007.

"That's too much," said Guthrie, the council's only Democrat. "We don't want to go back to the dark ages."

Not everyone agrees.

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a former teacher, says the increase to 115 percent would help reduce crowding.

Guthrie first introduced the bill to remove the expiration provision in August. But he withdrew it when two favorable amendments to the bill failed by 3-3 votes. Robert G. Cassilly, a council member who had supported Guthrie's bill in the past, was absent.

Guthrie began his effort in March 2003, when he first proposed changes in the adequate facilities law. Parents jammed the council chambers to argue that such crowding impedes learning. They said it threatens students' safety and puts added strain on students and teachers. They expressed concern that some students were taking classes in hallways and criticized the school system for increased use of portable classrooms.

Slutzky said the county needs to change the guideline to 15 percent if it hopes to get state funding for school construction. In a process called forward funding, the county is paying the $59 million cost of the Patterson Mill Middle and High School complex, with the hope that the state will later chip in with its traditional 50 percent share of the cost.

"Everyone involved has accepted the fact that somewhere near 115 percent limit is necessary for state funding to occur," Slutzky said in a note to other council members.

Money for school construction will be a top priority among county representatives to the General Assembly during the legislative session that begins next month.

Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican and chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said the group would be pushing for $60 million in state funding for the replacement of Bel Air and Edgewood high schools.

The county will be seeking an additional $20 million for the construction of an elementary school in Bel Air.

Guthrie's push for reducing crowding resulted in formation of a task force in 2003 to review the county's adequate facilities law.

For six months, the nine-member panel studied the issue. The sessions ended acrimoniously when Frank F. Hertsch, who represented the homebuilding industry, called for countywide redistricting that would shift students from crowded schools to others well below their capacity.

Valerie Twanmoh, a task force member representing Friends of Harford, a group that monitors growth issues, disagreed, saying that if a family moves into a neighborhood parents should have the right to expect their child to go to a school close to home.

In October 2003, the council passed a bill that reduced the adequate facilities guideline from 20 percent to 15 percent.

Early in 2004, the council asked the county's legislative delegation for authorization for ways to raise money to pay for school construction. When the delegation authorized only the use of an impact fee on new homes, the council responded by passing another bill the cut the adequate facilities figure to 5 percent.

Slutzky said that move accomplished its purpose by forcing the county administration to move forward on the Patterson Mill school project without state funding. He said the 5 percent threshold is no longer needed.

Guthrie said there is no guarantee that the state will pay its 50 percent of the cost of new schools, even if the county increases the adequate facilities rate.

"Show me a letter signed by Governor Ehrlich that he will help pay for our school and I will vote to remove the [expiration]," he said.

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