Guest Column: Bill would allow more rational decisions on school capacity
By Councilman JAMIE BENOIT and Councilman RON DILLON
On March 17 we introduced a bill to the County Council to revise the calculation of the adequacy of public facilities, or APF, for schools. It was billed by this newspaper as an effort to "intentionally overcrowd schools" (The Sunday Capital, March 16). The headline reflects neither our intentions nor the bill's potential outcomes.
Current school capacity decisions are made using bad data. During the last several years, this has led to chronic overcrowding at some schools, while neighboring schools lie fallow and far undercapacity.
Our unbalanced school population, coupled with our approach to building schools, is the direct cause of Anne Arundel County's repeated failure, when compared to similarly sized counties, to secure more state school money.
Overcrowding burdens school resources and facilities and vacant schools are a drain on precious school resources. In either case, under the current system, the taxpayers lose. Our bill will begin to remedy that.
Sherlock Holmes noted in a famous conversation with Dr. Watson that "the temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession." Likewise, a system that forces administrators to make decisions without good data and information reduces those decisions to nothing more than opinions. Our bill aims to fix that.
A school's "projected enrollment" is the critical piece of information on which decisions about whether it may take on additional students are based. If the data used to determine projected enrollment are inaccurate, the decision to open a school to new students will be unsound.
The formula Anne Arundel uses to determine projected enrollment double counts students who live in one school district and attend school in another. This situation arises when, for example, legitimate day-care needs necessitate out-of-area attendance.
The result of this double counting is that one student occupies a seat at two different schools.This wastes taxpayer money by not maximizing every dollar allocated to our schools.
The use of the current formula results in schools remaining open for development despite being overcrowded. These schools include Belvedere, Davidsonville, Deale, Edgewater, Marley and Riviera Beach elementary schools. The proposed bill would close these schools to development.
Likewise, the formula produces the exact opposite result - there is excess capacity, yet the school remains closed. Such is the case at Meade Heights Elementary School.
Empty seats also waste taxpayer money because, just a like a seat occupied by a student, an empty seat costs money for air conditioning and staff. Every empty seat represents lost potential to educate a student.
The part of our legislation that has elicited the most attention would raise allowable capacities to 105 percent for elementary schools and 110 percent for secondary schools. We decided on these numbers by researching several factors.
We took a more conservative position than surrounding jurisdictions that use higher capacities. For example, Montgomery County allows up to 120 percent, and Howard and Baltimore counties allow up to 115 percent.
And our system requires a "capacity discount" called a scheduling factor. So, for example, if a school had been built to a 1,000-student capacity, for the purposes of whether that school may receive new students the capacity would be artificially lowered to 900.
Based on school capacity and projected enrollment provided by the Board of Education, 29 of 78 - 37 percent - of elementary schools will operate at more than 100 percent capacity in 2010. Further, 24 of 78 - or 31 percent - will operate at more than 105 percent capacity in 2010.
Some of these situations are dire. Crofton Elementary School, for example is projected to be 164 percent of state-rated capacity while Benfield and West Meade elementary schools will be at more than 150 percent.
Based on 2010 projected enrollment, there will be 11 of 78 - 14 percent - of elementary schools operating under 80 percent of capacity.
A law that uses actual projected enrollment data will help Anne Arundel County make better land use, capital improvement and school district decisions and will help balance school capacities throughout the county.
The bedrock of sound decision making is accurate, up-to-date information. This is especially true when making decisions about the education our children receive. Both of us are proud of the education we received in Anne Arundel's public school system. In the face of a growing school maintenance backlog and a lagging economy, our children are in danger of getting something less than we did.
Our highest duty as elected officials is to make sure our school system is funded and efficiently managed so that your children get the same education we are so proud to have received. This legislation is one attempt to fulfill that duty.
Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville resident, is the County Council representative for District 4. Ron Dillon, a Pasadena resident, is the County Council representative for District 3.