Schools to fall within limits

Enrollment charts show by 2010 no elementary, middle is overcrowded

June 20, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

For the first time since the passage 15 years ago of laws to slow development around packed Howard County schools, there are no overcrowded elementary or middle schools on the horizon.

New enrollment charts due for submission to the County Council tomorrow will show that all the schools covered by the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance are expected to be below the law's crowding limit in 2010 and for several years beyond. The law says a school is overcrowded if its enrollment is at least 15 percent over capacity.

By comparison, 15 county schools were predicted to be over the law's limit in 2005. Last year's charts projected that one school would be over the limit in 2009.

"It's an incredible feat. It's very exciting for all of us," said Julie Egert, PTA president of Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville in 2003-2004, when that school was a prime example of school crowding in Howard County.

"I think it's an important sign that the county has done a reasonable job managing growth," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "We've come a long way."

The end of school crowding won't produce a new wave of homebuilding, officials said, because of a separate housing allocation system that parcels out building permits according to an annual formula.

The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance prevents requests for new residential developments from being processed around any elementary or middle school projected to be over the 15 percent overcrowding standard. The annual projections look ahead three years to give the county time to redistrict or build new classrooms. If the crowding is not remedied, developers can move forward with their applications after four years.

After a torrent of crowding complaints from parents, Howard County tightened its APFO in 2002 to include middle schools and lower the crowding threshold from 120 percent to 115 percent. The county also spent billions building schools, often using county money when state funding was not available.

To keep pace with fast growth, the county has built 30 schools since 1988. Slowing enrollment growth has also helped the county catch up.

"The chart simply represents the fact that we have caught up with our enrollment demand - for the moment," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who worked for years as a parent to fix school crowding before winning a school board seat in 2002 and a County Council seat last year.

Watson warned that with redevelopment of central Columbia and thousands of federal employees expected to come to Central Maryland in a few years, enrollments likely will rise again.

"I'm glad we finally got there," said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who also served on the school board. "Given the amount of money we've spent adding seats across the county, it's about time."

Despite years of criticism of the APFO law, several parents and developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. said it has helped.

"Planning has spread growth out over time," he said. "You don't get the pig-in-the-python effect."

"It worked," said Cindy Ardinger, a parent and former PTA president at once chronically crowded Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City.

Linda Dombrowski, a county Planning Board member and former PTA president at Hollifield Elementary, another often crowded school, agreed. "The school system data and the working relationship with the county have become more reliable. It shows that [APFO] works."

Diane Mikulis, the school board chairman, said things are looking up for county schools. "With those new schools and additions in process, we feel we're going to be in pretty good shape," she said.

A new study of all the system's buildings - including the continuing use of portable classrooms - is under way, she said, as the board's emphasis shifts to renovations of older buildings.

Crowding at Manor Woods Elementary, the one school predicted to be over the legal limit in last year's charts, is expected to drop with redistricting after two additions at nearby Waverly Elementary provide seats for 225 more pupils.

The new enrollment charts, which the County Council will consider next month, will show no district closed to development until 2013, when Manor Woods, Northfield and Bellows Spring elementaries are again projected to be over the limit.

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin pointed out that the board uses a stricter internal standard for classroom crowding than the 115 percent threshold the law allows.

"We want schools to be between 90 and 110 percent of capacity," he said.

For those who fought the crowding battles for years, the new charts represent a victory.

Egert's oldest child started at Pointers Run in 1993 and is in high school now, she said. Her youngest is a student at Pointers Run.

"I've been from one extreme to another," she said. From a time when teachers were desperately using every open space, every nook and cranny for teaching space, to now, when things are more peaceful.

"Now it's easy," she said. "The classes are less crowded. There are not as many students in the grades."

Parents at Pointers Run helped fuel a parents' revolt against crowded schools and what they saw as unbridled development in 2000, when they conducted a door-to-door headcount of children, finding 1,132 due to attend the school in 2001, when the building had a capacity of 774.

"They constantly underestimate the parents," Egert said, chuckling as she recalled the tumult.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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