Growing pains of schools

Some say bigger-is-better concept undercuts state's fight on sprawl

March 25, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Howard County's newest high school, Marriotts Ridge, overlooks Old Frederick Road, an increasingly busy stretch of two-lane blacktop where former farm fields are sprouting McMansions. The two-year-old school is not only a symptom, some would say, but also an enabler of the suburban sprawl that continues to chew up Maryland's countryside.

The $34 million school, with its skylight atrium, is about 10,000 square feet larger than the last high school the county built five years ago. Its 32-acre campus is also too far away for many of its students to walk there, even if they wanted to.

"We're not living within a walkable community anymore," laments Mary Catherine Cochran of Ellicott City. Her youngest daughter faces a seven-mile ride by bus or car to class when she starts at Marriotts Ridge in August.

Long-distance commutes to class have become more common in the Baltimore suburbs, as the schools built there over the years have grown larger and more remote from the neighborhoods they serve.

Now, as Gov. Martin O'Malley pushes for a record $400 million in state spending to build, expand and renovate schools across Maryland, some are questioning whether school construction policies and practices are undermining the state's decade-old fight against sprawl.

"Why are so many of our schools being built out in cornfields where nobody can walk to them?" asks Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group that advocates compact development.

She and other critics say local and state officials are still building too many "megaschools out in the middle of nowhere," which aggravate traffic, air pollution and childhood obesity. Sprawling, distant schools also weaken the role the facilities could play as community centers, they argue, while costing taxpayers as busing budgets balloon.

School construction is not covered by Maryland's 1997 Smart Growth law, which limits state spending on roads, utilities and the like to existing towns and cities, or to other areas designated for growth, usually already served by public water and sewer.

Baltimore City, with dwindling enrollments, has been grappling with parents over closing neighborhood schools to save money.

Elsewhere, however, officials are pressed to keep up with growing enrollments, as the latest census figures show the state's population growing most in exurban and rural counties. Ebb Valley Elementary School, which is under construction on the outskirts of Manchester, is Carroll County's 15th new school in 17 years.

The state covers half or more of the costs of school construction, with local governments paying the rest. Most of the state funds go for renovating, adding to or replacing existing buildings, according to an analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning. But seven of 28 new schools approved statewide in the past six years are outside of areas designated by local and state governments for residential growth. In the Baltimore area, the ratio is even higher: four in 12.

David G. Lever, the state Department of Education's executive director of school construction, said that state officials do weigh a school's location in deciding whether to fund impriovements, along with the building's age, how overcrowded it is and what special educational needs the facility has.

"We take account of that, but it's not the overriding factor," he said of Smart Growth consideration.

Indeed, until asked recently by The Sun, state officials could not say how many school construction projects had been funded inside designated growth areas, and how many outside.

But Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said that with the O'Malley administration's commitment to Smart Growth, he intends to take a closer look at how and where state funds are spent on school construction.

"We realize that schools need to be where they need to be," he said, "but where possible, one of our jobs ... is to encourage a Smart Growth take on where schools are sited."

Local and state education officials say they have been forced to build schools outside of designated growth areas because they can't find the land they need within them. That is because the schools have grown in size, as have the grounds. Modern schools have to be bigger to house growing enrollments economically, they say, and to provide more parking and ball fields. Environmental regulations also contribute to schools' sprawl, they contend, by forcing a significant part of the site to be set aside for ponds and trees to curb polluted runoff.

"Our specifications for buildings changed," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools. "The amount of property we needed for schools increased."

Local officials point out that they are driven to build larger schools to economize, because neither they nor the state are able to pay for all the classroom space needed. Even this year's record $400 million proposed by O'Malley covers less than half what local officials asked for.

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