Enrollment projections list only one building expected to face chronic problems as of 2009

School-crowding solution gains

June 21, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

The sheets of paper swim with figures. Almost 1,200 of them. But one stands out: the number 1.

And it means the Howard County school system is inching toward solving the overcrowding that has been a problem for so long.

The latest enrollment projections, beginning in 2009, forecast only Manor Woods Elementary will be chronically overcrowded, or "closed," meaning home construction will be sharply restricted in that part of western Howard County.

And that school is expected to slip into the "open" category the next year because of an expansion program that will add room for 100 more seats.

While officials might never formally declare victory over the problem, their progress in easing school overcrowding in the past six years has been extraordinary.

Consider that last year's projections listed six schools as closed and for the 2004 academic year, 16 schools were closed.

"We've made progress," says David C. Drown, who prepared the most recent projections before assuming the position of director of the school system's Department of Transportation. "As a district, I think we're in better shape than where we were in 2001."

Two factors have driven the improvements:

A sharp reduction in the rate of growth in the schools. For the academic year just concluded, for instance, there were 350 more students, compared with about 1,900 a year the system had in the 1990s.

An aggressive, multimillion-dollar expansion program that will have produced eight schools in as many years.

The enrollment forecasts, revised annually, cover only elementary and middle schools. The figures are used to help determine the system's building priorities. More important, they also designate schools as "open" or "closed," which affects greatly the building plans of developers.

A closed school, meaning it is at least 115 percent of capacity, prevents developers from constructing homes in that area until the school and road system can accommodate more students.

The open/closed chart, which will become effective after ratification by the County Council on July 3, begins in three years and extends 10 years. The latest projections begin with the school year 2009 and stop at 2018.

Five other elementary schools and four middle schools are projected to fall into the closed category, but none before 2011, which provides the system with time to ease or prevent overcrowding through expansion and redistricting.

For instance, two schools will open next year -- a replacement for Bushy Park Elementary and an elementary school in the northeastern region -- and a middle school is planned for 2011 in the west.

That explains why, for example, Northfield Elementary, which is projected to be at 120 percent of capacity in 2009, is not a closed school.

"We can assume redistricting is going to take place if there is a capital project in place," Drown says. When redistricting is factored in, he says, Northfield falls below the system's threshold and remains an open school.

But Drown will not say the problems are over.

"I've been here long enough to know that things could change," he says. "There are all kinds of different variables."

It would require a profound transformation of the county, though, for the politically charged issue to return with the same vengeance experienced in the past decade.

Among the decisions that could adversely affect overcrowding are: reversing the county's preservation efforts in western Howard County and opening the region to significantly greater development, expanding the public water and sewer boundaries and greatly increasing the number of homes that can be built annually.

None of those, however, are expected. And barring a major jolt that would result from a significant shift in policy, rampant school overcrowding should be a thing of the past.

"I don't foresee it happening," Drown says. "I don't think it will, but I've learned in this business never to say never."

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