The Capital: “City passes school capacity bill”

Capital Gazette: July 25, 2016

By: E.B. Fergurson III, Capital Gazette reporter

The Annapolis City Council on Monday passed the city’s first school capacity test in order for developments to be approved.

The legislation is designed to reduce residential development, or at least delay it, near crowded schools in the city, including the overcrowded Tyler Heights Elementary School.

The city had never included a school capacity test when considering whether to approve developments because Anne Arundel County operates local schools and has a school capacity test in its adequacy of public facilities development regulations.

Supporters of the measure sought some help for their neighborhoods’ overcrowded schools, but opponents and developers said it wasn’t necessary because local projects don’t add that many students to schools.

Amendments were added to bridge the gap between the two sides, but will make the city’s school test less stringent than the county’s.

“The ordinance the city has, as amended, is in fact more lenient and lax than the one the county enforces,” said Alex Szachnowicz, Chief Operating Officer of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, who served on a county-city work group on school capacity.

The county stalls development if a school is at 100 percent or less of the state mandated capacity for that school. If a school is “closed” to new students, a development must wait six years, then it can move forward. The city will do the same.

But the city measure now allows schools to be overcrowded by state standards. The bill says elementary and middle schools in the city can be at 105 percent of state capacity, high schools at 120 percent. The amendment previously specified 110 percent for elementary and middle schools.

Some of the schools affected include Tyler Heights, which currently has 13 portable classrooms; Hillsmere Elementary, with six portables; and Annapolis High School, which has eight portables.

Though the new law will have the effect of slowing some development in the city, the increased capacity could allow some projects to move forward that might not have done so otherwise.

Szachnowicz said the upcoming county school capacity review will close Annapolis High School, the new Germantown Elementary and Tyler Heights Elementary.

Under the new regulation only Tyler Heights, which is at 134 percent capacity, would remain closed, Szachnowicz said. Projects within city limits affecting enrollment at Germantown and Annapolis High would be allowed to proceed.

“There’s a way to fix it,” said Alderman Ross Arnett. “The school board could do their job and redistrict, but they refuse to do it. I know they don’t want to face up to angry parents, I don’t blame them. But it’s their job.”

Eastport resident Jessica Pachler testified in favor of the bill during the public comment period of Monday night’s meeting.

“If a school is closed, a development only as to wait six years. That isn’t a long time in the development world but it is an entire elementary school career for a child.” she said.

“They only get one chance at an education and deserve the best chance we can give them” Pachler added. “City kids deserve the same playing field as those in the county.”

Another amendment passed with the legislation could also allow more building in the city without school capacity review. Under previous versions of the bill, developments of five or less units would be exempt from the school capacity rules. The Amendment hikes that exception to 11 units or less.

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