The county's capacity

December 22, 2005

The Baltimore County Council has decided to strengthen the county's restriction on development that might cause schools to become overcrowded. The change involving the adequate facilities ordinance directs the county's planning office to consider not only how crowded schools are today, but also how crowded approved developments are going to make them tomorrow. This is entirely appropriate.

But, unfortunately, matters involving schools are rarely so cut and dried. There are occasions when development plans sit around for years. Should a highly regarded project be shut out because a theoretical one with prior approval is still on the books? The legislation leaves it to planning officials to make a reasoned judgment.

And while adequate facilities laws have had an impact on fast-growing counties such as Howard and Harford, the effects in Baltimore County have been modest. Since 1999, no development has been halted because there wasn't room in a local school.

Overcrowding in Baltimore County is itself a curiosity. The county's overall student enrollment is relatively stable. Since last year, enrollment has actually declined by 629 students. But demographics change. Older neighborhoods have fewer children to educate, but there are pockets of growth, such as in Owings Mills and White Marsh, where schools are bulging at the seams.

As a result, at least 15 county schools are now classified as overcrowded. But many more are operating at 10 percent or more below capacity. It's a big county, of course, and traditional boundaries ought to be respected. And it's true the county is plagued by an abundance of older buildings that don't meet modern needs, so bricks and mortar have their appeal.

But if the council members want to get serious about school overcrowding, they need to do more. They ought to ask the school board to explore the potential relief offered by redistricting schools - shifting boundaries to redistribute the student population. That's not a popular concept. Sensitive issues of race and class would be raised. But the idea deserves to be discussed. Politicians who ignore redistricting because it's a hot-button issue are likely inadequate, too.

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