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February 8, 2011

Addressing School Needs vs. Development

Farrell Keough

A great treat exists for you people this week – please avail yourselves of the opportunity! At The Buzz, (Green Valley Center in Monrovia) you will be able to enjoy the Farrell Keough sam’ich!


While you are enjoying your sam’ich, let’s consider the changes being proposed by the Board of County Commissioners and municipalities with respect to the APFO (Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances) on school capacity.


During the Gardner Board, the concept of a county-wide APFO was proposed. This created a great deal of strife between the commissioners and the many municipalities that would be affected. As noted by Thurmont Mayor Martin Burns, “[a]n APFO is only part of a multi-faceted approach to make sure infrastructure can handle projected growth. The reason it’s a bad law when forced on municipalities is because [they] do not control whether a school is overcrowded alone. Former Commissioner Charles Jenkins pointed out during the APFO public hearing that five of the worst overcrowded schools were schools that are NOT impacted by any municipality.”


In short, Mayor Burns noted that the state may lower the student ratio and the Board of Education may close down a school only to redistrict those students to a different municipality. If a county-wide APFO was in place, this could mean that no new development could take place in said municipality. Through no fault or action of its own, a municipality can be restricted by both the school board and the commissioners with the stroke of a pen.


A proponent of the county-wide APFO noted that the county could also force redistricting to fulfill state mandated “Smart Growth” policies. This would cause an equal amount of strife due to the myriad disruptions placed on families having to send their children to schools they do not prefer.


The other side of this coin would be Brunswick. With a very weak APFO, they allowed a 1,500 home development to come into their community. Virtually no funds will be paid to deal with this tremendous influx of new students. Currently there is no mechanism available, shy of increased taxes, to deal with such a situation.*


So, what is the fix? Do we implement a county-wide APFO, or do we look to another methodology?


When questioned about the change in approach, Commissioner President Blaine Young responded:


We need to create jobs / expand the accessible tax base / create retail power with new residents and generate money for school construction. The current APFO stiffens all of these opportunities – when a market is out of control and growth is outpacing infrastructure then a tool like APFO may be appropriate – but when the opposite happens then a tool like a APFO can make the economy worse. So we can tweak the APFO with a pay-go or school mitigation fee so the market can dictate opportunities not the government while still creating jobs / expand the accessible tax base / create retail power with new residents and generate money for school construction. The development community and business community are working with us and will present an opportunity very soon.


One cannot deny the need to increase business in our area. Nor can one argue that our current county APFO does not affect this process. It should also be remembered that previous Boards of County Commissioner’s forward-funded school construction – depending on the state to cover the costs. This scenario has not worked as intended and we are still waiting on millions of dollars from the state to cover these costs.


As further noted by Mayor Burns: “… Thurmont did not see significant school dollars to fix current schools for 30 years. We have an APFO that equals the county’s, yet it took us 30 years to get our schools up to shape, and build a much needed primary school. The county, however, saw fit to build Urbana and spend a ton on a new school without taking care of existing schools...Why?”


The question then becomes, how does one move forward?


The concept of Pay-Go would impose a fee on a developer for the amount of new students projected. While agreeing with this concept in theory, Mayor Burns noted that an increase in the schools affected would not need to happen immediately. “As the schools will not immediately be at or over capacity, we could have the money and begin to plan for a school addition in parallel with a development.”


Another significant factor is parental perception/desire. Mayor Burns elaborated on this point:


As you can see it is a multi-faceted issue with blame to go around to everyone....  It’s important to try to provide adequate facilities to foster the best learning environment for kids. It is not however a panacea, I went to school in a building that was built in 1910. We had no air conditioning, and a small gym. However, I would not have changed it for the world as we were proud of our school, it made us appreciate what we had, and taught us the best in the lessons of life. The kids could care less and this issue is more about parents who believe they have an entitlement to perfect schools.


So, we can see some propositions are already on the table for changing the current methodology for handling development and its impact on schools. Solving the problems of existing school repairs, having each municipality determine an appropriate APFO, redistricting as a school overcrowding solution, among the many problems still need to be decided. Don’t wait until the decision is over before voicing your preference or concern.



* The Brunswick situation is far more complicated than this simple paragraph. It will behoove all involved in this situation to fully understand the specifics of situations like Brunswick and Frederick City.


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