New Life For School Capacity Measure

Grasso wants County Council to take another shot at 95% school capacity bill

By Chase Cook ccook@caspgaznews.com

Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso has resurrected defeated legislation that would have stopped development near almost-full schools earlier than current law.

The Glen Burnie Republican’s bill would halt development impacting schools when school capacity reached 95 percent rather than 100 percent by law. Closing schools to development is one portion of the county’s adequate public facilities law. The law aims to keep the county from outgrowing its schools, police, fire, water and other resources.

Grasso’s original bill was defeated in June. But due to concerns about school congestion, Grasso has brought back the bill, which would apply to elementary, middle and high schools.

And he said he has enough votes.

“I picked up one more vote,” Grasso said. “It is a serious issue to address in the school system. It’s common sense.”

It will be hard for Grasso to get traction on the same bill again in the same year it was defeated. But it was defeated 4-3 so he had to convince only one of the four “no” votes. Those no votes include Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton; Derek Fink, R-Pasadena; Michael Peroutka, R-Millersville; and Peter Smith, D-Severn.

Grasso wouldn’t say who plans to flip their vote.

The county has struggled with school capacity. Projected enrollment in 2017 estimates 19 elementary schools and one high school will be at 100 percent or higher capacity. With Grasso’s bill, that would jump up to 33 schools — 28 elementary schools, 2 middle schools and 3 high schools — above 95-percent capacity.

The Anne Arundel County Public Schools system supported Grasso’s last bill. Officials pointed to Linthicum Elementary School, which is projected to have 1,000 students in the next decade. It opened not long ago with a capacity for 489 kids. The school is projected to be at 97 percent capacity in 2017.

Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz said the school system again would support the legislation. Slowing down development near almost full schools would help the school system catch up to development, he said.

“Think of the [adequate public facilities law] as a circuit breaker,” Szachnowicz said. “If you have a spike coming down the line, the circuit breaker sort of kicks in and allows a little bit of time to react to it.”

The reaction time is related to the way the county’s adequate public facilities law works. When a school is “closed” to development, developers can pay to increase the school’s capacity, wait until the capacity issue fixes itself or they can wait six years. Whichever comes first. After six years, if the school is still crowded, the developer can build.

Grasso said the county is crazy to allow that to happen. He plans to submit another bill to further slow down development near full schools. This bill would stall developments if the influx of students would drive the capacity over 95 percent.

“The quality of life of our kids is more important,” Grasso said.

The previous bill also was opposed by County Executive Steve Schuh’s administration. And Schuh hasn’t changed his mind.

He argued passing the bill would slow down development without solving the root problem of growing capacity’s at schools. Schuh argued his administration’s push on school construction aims to reduce the congestion of county schools. One of those projects, Crofton High School, is expected to have a capacity of about 1,700 students.

“We’ve not supported that initiative in past council sessions because we don’t think manipulating school capacity numbers is the right way to manage land and development in the county,” Schuh said. “The correct way to manage land and development is through the GDP planning process, which we have already done.”

The GDP, or General Development Plan, is the county’s comprehensive guide for land use within the county. It establishes policies and recommendations of land use over a 20-year time frame, according to a description of the plan on the county’s website. The current plan was approved in 2009.

The county is currently holding listening sessions for a plan update in the next two years. The next session is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 30 at Old Mill High School. The results of those meeting are posted on the county’s www.aacounty.org website.