Parents, school at odds over crowding

Balto. Co.'s Gardina says system breaks enrollment-cap vow

September 19, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,sun reporter

It's simple math: 759 is greater than 685.

But the number of students exceeding the capacity of Chapel Hill Elementary is also at the center of a real-life civics lesson.

The Baltimore County school's place at the center of a debate on encouraging home construction without straining public resources led to a meeting between a county councilman and the head of the school system. Now, the councilman is accusing the school system of breaking a promise to limit the size of Chapel Hill's student body.

And parents, who plan to speak at tonight's county school board meeting, say that they are angry that the school system did not prevent crowding by sending new students to other schools.

"We could see this coming, and our cries were completely unheard," said Rick Heuther, president of the Perry Hall school's PTA.

School officials say that they continue to consider capping enrollment, but that they cannot impose a limit until they agree on enrollment statistics at the end of this month. They insist that the increased enrollment has not affected the quality of instruction.

The circumstances at Chapel Hill were held up during the last school year as an illustration of what some describe as a shortcoming in Baltimore County's "adequate public facilities ordinance." Such laws are designed to prevent new homes from overwhelming essentials such as roads, water and schools, but in Baltimore County the law allows homes to be built near schools that are over their rated capacity if an adjoining school is under capacity.

County officials say there is no reason to block construction or build a new school when other schools have the space to relieve crowding. Schools officials are often reluctant to redistrict or to divert students from overcrowded schools to those with open seats.

"Some people say that you can just redistrict that area, but they forget that redistricting affects all the other schools in the area," school board President Donald L. Arnold said of the Chapel Hill area.

Vincent Gardina, a county councilman whose district includes Chapel Hill Elementary, said that schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston promised him last summer at a private meeting that he would limit enrollment at the school to 685. Hairston later wrote a letter to Gardina that mentions a cap as a "relief strategy" for Chapel Hill.

"I think Dr. Hairston and the Board of Education have completely failed on the overcrowding problem at Chapel Hill," Gardina said.

A spokesman said that Hairston was not available for comment.

Bill Lawrence, assistant superintendent for schools in the northeast area, attributed Chapel Hill's enrollment spike to children attending a new full-day kindergarten program.

In addition to setting up two trailers with portable classrooms at Chapel Hill - which increased the school's capacity from 593 to 685 students - the school has hired two kindergarten teachers' aides and plans to hire two more.

Enrollment did not increase dramatically in the upper grades, Lawrence said.

Craig Goodwin, whose daughter attends first grade, said he worries about the safety of getting so many children onto school buses at the end of the day.

"They keep adding kids to the school," Goodwin said. "But they aren't making the gym any bigger, they aren't making the library any bigger, they aren't making the cafeteria any bigger."

Lawrence said the idea of sending new students bound for Chapel Hill to surrounding schools presents another problem because enrollment at other schools exceeded expectations. But he said officials might divert students who arrive later to Kingsville Elementary School, which is more than 70 students below capacity.

Members of the school system's strategic planning team said that overcrowding issues would be resolved when the county opens a new elementary school in the area in 2008. Officials estimate that that school - at what is referred to as the Vincent Farms site - will absorb at least 200 students from the Chapel Hill zone.

Ghassan Shah, a planning administrator for the school system, said that the state puts the school system in a difficult position. The school system is not able to get money to build a new school until it can prove that the school will have at least half of its seats filled in the first year and all seats filled within five years.

Some community leaders want to halt new residential development until the school opens. The area's educational advisory committee supports a building moratorium, committee President David Marks said.

Gardina said that the law should be changed to prevent the construction of new homes if the nearest school does not have room for more children.

School officials said that they would design new districts next year that would go into effect in 2008.

The board does not want to redistrict the same area twice in two years, Arnold said.

Arnold also cautioned that an enrollment cap could cause unwanted repercussions, such as siblings being sent to different schools or children who live across the street from one school being bused to another school.

"The problem is, in Baltimore County, build it and they come - and that's great," he said. "But what do we do with them when we have them?"

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