By: E.B. Fergurson III, Capital Gazette reporter
The city’s new school enrollment rules for developers allow more students per school than the county regulations they are modeled after, but are more restrictive elsewhere.
While the new rules, counting the number of students a project will generate against school enrollment capacity, do not seem to threaten delay of any projects in the pipeline, they could do just that down the line.
“If a project previously needed to meet adequacy of public facilities standards it will now need to meet one for school capacity,” Alderman Jared Littmann said.
The measure was worked on for about a year. A work group was set up with city and county representatives to study the issues.
The legislation creates the school test for the first time in Annapolis. The city will now use county-generated school capacity data to determine if a development can move forward or must wait until enrollment pressure is diminished.
The bill amended and passed Monday night sets a student capacity standard less restrictive than the county, which operates the schools.
The county stalls a project’s development if any school in its geographic feeder area is at 100 percent of the state-mandated capacity. The city bill originally did the same.
The city now allows schools to be overcrowded by state standards. A late amendment allows elementary and middle schools in the city to be at 105 percent of state capacity, while for high schools it is 120 percent.
Some call that a compromise while others say it favors developers. Some on the council said the way to fix the entire problem is for the county school board to redistrict schools.
“That was a main concern among developers,” Littmann said. “The effect of closing an elementary school is not as bad as closing the only high school.”
“If Annapolis High School is closed, the whole city is shut down for development.”
Attorney Alan Hyatt, who is also chairman of Severn Bancorp Inc., is the dominant voice in the development community in the city.
“We felt the high school should have been exempt all together, but 120 percent is a compromise they ultimately agreed upon,” Hyatt said. “The high school that services the city of Annapolis receives students from all over the county for various programs. Development in the city has little to do with the impact on that school. There is such little development in the city, development is not the cause of overcrowding in the schools.”
Opponents of the bill say otherwise.
“The city bill is essentially a nothing-burger,” said Gerald Winegrad, a former state delegate. “It will have no practical effect.”
“The county might label the school ‘closed,’ but city kids will still be going to a school with eight trailers,” he added. “The other side might argue redistricting schools is the answer, but there is no practical way to bus students to Broadneck or South River (high schools).”
But the new school test rules are tighter on potential development in two primary areas: how a project’s potential students are counted and when they are counted.
One problem with the county regulations that alderman sought to correct in the city bill is how the students are counted.
“When looking at a project we wanted to make sure to include how many students are projected to be enrolled,” said Littmann, who offered the amendments along with Alderman Ross Arnett.
So, unlike the county procedure, the number of potential students in any particular development will be added to the county’s official numbers. If that puts a school over the city’s 105-percent or 120-percent capacity, the development will have to wait up to six years for the project application to be approved.
The county looks at the number of students at a school, projected three years out, and declares a school open or closed. If a school is open, a development gets a go-ahead, no matter how many students it might generate.
The city would add that number of students to the numbers the county uses and make a determination based on that projection.
The second difference with the county rules is when the determination is made. The county can give a project a preliminary go-ahead at the early sketch stage of a development’s application process.
“We took out that sketch option and will wait until an application is essentially ready to be submitted for final approval,” Littmann said. He said that leaves plenty of time for the project to be modified.
And to keep track of student counts, the city will examine the student numbers twice a year instead of the county’s once-a-year look.
Several people, including Hyatt, pointed to the school board to fix the overall problem by redistricting schools. While some schools in the city are at or beyond capacity, like Tyler Heights Elementary at 138 percent of capacity, others are at 58 or 77 percent this coming year.
“The school board could do their job and redistrict but they refuse to do it,” Arnett said. “I know they don’t want to face up to angry parents, I don’t blame them. But it’s their job.”
The school board earlier this month asked Superintendent George Arlotto to make recommendations on redistricting.