Enrollment imbalance

Our view : Audit should prompt Baltimore County schools to revise overcrowding remedies

November 03, 2008

Public schools in the Towson area have too many students. Schools in the Dundalk-Middle River area have too few. But the Baltimore County school system wouldn't consider resolving such imbalances by redrawing school boundary lines - that upsets too many communities. However, a recent state audit critical of the system's approach shows it's time for officials to rethink their response to overcrowded and underused schools. With declining enrollments, the county can't continue to build its way out of this problem.

The legislative audit, part of a periodic review of school systems' financial management, found that county school officials spend millions on new schools without sufficiently considering additions or expansions that could resolve overcrowding issues and save money. With the system's 103,000-student population expected to decline, the audit suggested it should increase the number of students at underenrolled schools rather than build new ones. Legislative auditors identified 29 schools with enrollments of less than 80 percent capacity and 75 that were overcrowded. Even with the addition of portable classrooms to relieve overcrowding, 52 schools had too many pupils.

Though the mere suggestion of redistricting can bring hundreds of parents to a meeting, a 2003 facilities study by the school system found that 70 percent of parents supported four ways to reduce overcrowding - and changing school boundaries topped the list. The audit noted that the county hasn't closed a school in 25 years.

The county prefers to build new schools, expand others or shift education programs between schools to keep the right enrollment balance. And examples cited in the audit reflect that: The system built additions at two overcrowded schools in the southwest area of the county, when nearby schools had less-than-full classrooms.

That doesn't make good financial sense in these tough economic times.

The county's school leaders didn't dispute the audit's findings; they said redistricting is an option as long as it doesn't compromise the integrity of neighborhood schools or an educational program. With those two caveats, the school system could avoid redistricting for years. But new construction addresses only one side of the equation in the contentious debate over crowded schools. The formula needs to change.

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