Growing smaller

January 17, 2012

While it's great that Harford County Public Schools can claim that no school in the system is operating beyond 110 percent capacity, the feat is hardly one that should have involved the kind of gyrations it took to get to the threshold.

Even as the county opened a new elementary school in this academic year and added a new high and middle school operation at Patterson Mill not all that many years ago, enrollment in the local public school system has been inching down even as capacity has been growing.

Going back a few years, it would have been perfectly reasonable to round the school system's enrollment to 40,000 students, as the actual figure hovered on either side of the 40,000 mark. In recent years, however, enrollment has bumped downward so that in the most recent end-of-September snapshot, the total enrollment was estimated at 37,835. (School systems see their numbers fluctuate throughout any given school year as people move, change from public to private or vice versa, so for comparison purposes, school systems in Maryland take a snapshot enrollment at the end of September each academic year.)

Considering that the school system has capacity for 44,112 students, that means there is unused capacity in the system for 6,277 students.

This raises a number of questions and makes it a bit difficult to understand why the county government and the school system are so proud that no school is operating beyond 110 percent capacity, though some are operating pretty close to that figure.

In their collective defense, school system administrators and county government officials face an unenviable task when it comes time to adjust school enrollment figures. It's one thing to know that there are more than 6,000 extra seats in the system, even as some schools remain at or slightly over capacity. It's quite another to look around and see that the extra space isn't in a nearby school to the over-capacity one. And there's the issue that sometimes extra capacity is needed in a particular community at the high school level, but the closest nearby extra capacity is in an elementary school.

Compounding this problem is a harsh political reality of school crowding: No one wants to send their children to an overcrowded school, but just about everyone whose kids go to an overcrowded school wants someone else's kids – not their own - sent to another school.

And, of course, there's the matter of underperforming schools. Are schools serving low income communities relatively poor performers because the families in the communities don't place a premium on education, or is it because the schools don't adequately serve the communities? (There's good reason to believe it's a little of both, but that's a subject for another day.) It's an especially hard sell to redistrict students from a high-performing school to one that's not in that category. Add the touchy subject of race, and redistricting to get enrollment across the board to be something approaching equal in all the schools becomes quite the challenge.

Still, an excess capacity of 6,000 students, give or take, is roughly equal to a related pod of one high school, one middle school and three or four feeder elementary schools. That's a lot of extra capacity, and the cost of staffing, heating and upkeep of five or six schools is quite substantial. Heck, the whole public school system in Kent County on the Eastern Shore consists of a high school, a middle school, five elementary schools and a special needs school.

At this point, there's no reason to start talking about closing schools. After all, something of an influx of people – and presumably new students – is expected to come in the aftermath of the latest expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Still, the government side of that expansion is complete, so it may come to pass that the Base Closure and Realignment changes at APG don't bring as many kids to the local school system as had been projected.

If, indeed, enrollment in our local schools continues to bump along in the 37,000 to 38,000 range, or if it continues to fall, the taxpayers would be foolish not to start asking why we continue to pay for all that extra capacity.

Sure, it makes redistricting easy because there's so much extra space, but is it really worth paying to run what amounts to an extra small-county school system every year just to avoid facing the prospect of redistricting?

Seems like that money could be better spent on improving a reduced number of schools. The day for this discussion may be years in the future, but given what's gone on in recent years, it's probably coming.

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