Untangling school capacity formula

County working on revised approach to spur growth in areas meant to accommodate it

August 31, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,chris.guy@baltsun.com

County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. has always called Anne Arundel's method for counting school enrollment "this crazy formula."

This week, the Pasadena Republican and County Executive John R. Leopold are sponsoring retooled legislation aimed at straightening a tangle of rules that some complain has stymied growth in areas designed to handle it, and has instead encouraged development in older communities in the northern part of the county.

Dillon, who unsuccessfully sponsored a similar proposal in the spring, says changes are "long overdue" in how school populations are projected for the purpose of the county's adequate facilities law.

"It's going to give us a much more accurate picture of what's the reality at our schools," he said.

Councilman Joshua Cohen, a Democrat from Annapolis, said, "We have to bring some rationality in how we determine school capacity."

The proposal, which will be discussed at the council's meeting Tuesday, would allow projects near two dozen county schools, but 62 residential projects that could add more than 1,000 houses remain on hold because of crowded schools, according to county planning and zoning officials. Proponents of the new approach say the current rules rely too heavily on state estimates.

Some counties allow schools to reach 120 percent of their capacity before halting construction near them. Anne Arundel prohibits residential construction as soon as a school reaches 100 percent of capacity, based on enrollment estimates.

Eric DeVito, president of the county chapter of the Maryland Homebuilders Association, described the current proposal as "Band-Aid approach."

"This is more like an incremental step in a process that's dragged on. We're in a situation where you can be on a waiting list for up to six years before you can start a project."

Officials say existing rules have encouraged development in some northern county communities where schools are not crowded, effectively steering growth away from areas such as the Odenton Town Center and other communities that were designed with public transportation and other amenities that would attract young families to affordable housing.

The county is about 8,000 students under capacity, but most of the empty desks are in schools in Glen Burnie, Linthicum and Brooklyn Park, where the number of school-age children has decreased.

Some developers, stymied by waiting lists that could stretch to six years in crowded school districts, have instead built projects aimed at over-55 home buyers.

The current system, some have said, results in fewer state dollars to build and renovate schools.

An earlier version of the proposal was pulled back last spring. It had prompted opposition from some parents who feared any change would make schools, especially those in west county, more crowded, said Claire Louder, executive director of the West Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce.

"The whole issue of changing the formula became a political hot potato," Louder said.

Since 2001, the state's formula has allowed school districts to consider middle and high schools completely full if they are at 85 percent capacity, while elementary schools have to reach 100 percent capacity to be considered full. The bill submitted in the spring would have allowed development at elementary schools that were at as much as 105 percent of capacity, and middle and high schools that were at 110 percent of capacity. It also would have reduced the waiting period.

Tuesday's legislative session also is set to include a public hearing on increasing impact fees charged to developers, an issue that has been stalled since January.

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