Capital Editorial: “Passage of city school bill important, overdue”

Capital Gazette: July 24, 2016

By: Capital Gazette Editorial Board

The city hasn’t been in any rush to extend the concept of adequate public facilities to school capacity. Indeed, it has been moving so slowly you could accuse it of standing still.

The bill the City Council is expected to approve Monday won’t provide any quick relief for some of Annapolis’ most miserably crowded elementary schools. And it may not bar developments some local residents yearn to see blocked.

Still, it’s important the measure be passed. The city is way overdue for an acknowledgment that school capacity must play a role in its development decisions, as it figures in similar decisions just over the county line. Once that acknowledgment has at least been made, the details can be adjusted.

As one of the measure’s sponsors, Alderman Jared Littmann, put it: “The legislation is not meant to solve the problem, but it does stop from making it worse. It will then put the focus on permanent solutions.”

The measure was introduced more than a year ago, on July 13, 2015. In April, the council — to the frustration of Littmann and co-sponsor Ross Arnett — voted 5-3 to postpone a decision until a report from a work group of city, county, education and business officials was finished.

That report is now in, or at least a draft has been shown to the council. Arnett, who was on the work group, called the results “a total waste of time.” The discussion, he said, concentrated on the county’s adequate facilities rules and “the city was an afterthought.”

On Monday the council will be considering amendments that could make the bill more palatable to its critics. Instead of having developers wait six years or pay for improvements if nearby schools are at 100 percent of capacity, the thresholds would be 110 percent for elementary schools and 120 percent for high schools. Also, the bill would grandfather in current developments that have already received adequate public facilities approval from the city, based on the current criteria of water and sewer service, and police and fire protection.

Such changes are too much for former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad, a leader of the fight against the Crystal Spring development, who wrote on this page Saturday that the alterations make the bill “all but meaningless.”

Admittedly, serious relief at Tyler Heights Elementary School — at 134 percent of capacity — is likelier to come from the construction work now in the county’s plans. And the school system could do a lot more for schools like Tyler Heights and Hillsmere Elementary with redistricting, a tool it has so far failed to effectively deploy. As with most factors connected with the schools, that’s not something over which the city has any control.

But it has been irresponsible for the city to leave school capacity out of the development decisions that have now crowded its pipeline with projects. And, with city elections on the horizon and development bound to be crucial issue, it may have dawned on city officials that this policy — or lack of one — could not go on.

The measure the City Council is expected to pass on Monday will hardly resolve the larger problem. But at least it’s a long-overdue first step.

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