Task force to address easing school crowding

Balto. County targets development impact

May 15, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

With homes continuing to be built near severely crowded schools despite a law to stop such construction, Baltimore County councilmen and representatives of county government plan to meet with public education officials to find a way to prevent development from overwhelming schools.

A county councilman said he will form a task force rather than move forward with a proposal designed to require the school system to bus children from new homes near crowded schools to less crowded schools. School officials had raised concerns about the cost of transporting the children, while county officials said development could be cut off in huge swaths of the county.

The task force, being assembled by Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, will look at alternatives that include every-other-year redistricting for schools and an impact fee on new homes to raise money for school construction.

"Nothing will be off the table," said Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "We've got to be able to come up with a solution for the overcrowding."

The formation of the task force comes as some lawmakers express dissatisfaction with the county's adequate public facilities ordinance. Counties throughout Maryland have similar laws designed to prevent new homes from overwhelming such essentials as roads, water and schools.

Despite Baltimore County's law, more than two dozen residential projects have gone forward in recent years near schools that exceeded their capacity by 15 percent, the point at which a building moratorium is to take effect.

Critics of the law point to an exemption that essentially sets up an impasse between the county government and the school system. The law allows homes to be built near schools that are over capacity if a nearby school is under capacity.

The idea behind the exemption is that the school system could even out enrollment throughout redistricting, but school officials rarely take up the thorny task of redrawing boundaries.

At least 15 schools in the county exceed their capacity by 15 percent.

The council recently changed the law so that the county would have to consider the impact of all development plans on a particular school, not just the impact of an individual plan.

Moxley had proposed another change, which would have required the county to turn down projects near crowded schools unless the school system agreed to bus the children to schools with the capacity to take them in.

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said the administration is in favor of the task force, but that it can't lose sight of the importance of keeping neighborhoods intact.

"The idea of just moving children all over the place is not necessarily an effective solution," Mohler said.

A school system spokesman said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston is open to discussing solutions to overcrowding but pointed to the school system's policy of using redistricting as a last resort.

School officials say most parents and students would rather avoid changing schools. And they say that frequent redistricting increases the likelihood that students would change schools more than once.

Even as Moxley assembles the task force, County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat, said he will likely propose an impact fee of $10,000 on new homes, with the revenue going toward school construction.

Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties impose impact fees, and Howard County imposes a similar excise tax.

Asked whether the administration would support an impact fee, Mohler said that all alternatives should be considered by the task force.

Walter Hayes of the Northeast Area Educational Advisory Council said he favors more controls on development and more school construction.

He said he likes the idea of the task force taking a broader look at crowding.

"The school system, the elected officials on the county and state level, and business people should have all come together and resolved this in 1985," before much of the growth in the county took place, he said. "Now, of course, we're trying to play catch-up."

Tom Ballentine, a spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said school crowding results from less-discussed factors, like the state's changing definition of school capacity and the turnover of existing homes to younger families with children.

"The source isn't just new homebuilding," Ballentine said. "Having a task force look at this issue and try to understand the complications of it is a good thing."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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