While Baltimore County’s classrooms are empty now due to COVID-19, many of its 163 schools will be crowded once things return to normal. That’s because its school construction program hasn’t kept up with a growing population.
There is an effort to put the brakes on proposed developments that would send more students to schools that are already full.
Baltimore County’s code states a developer cannot build in a school zone if that school is crowded. But there is a loophole. If there is room in a nearby school, the county can green light the development. Then the school board is supposed to adjust the enrollment by redistricting the schools’ boundaries, but that rarely happens.
Parent advocate Yara Cheikh points to Towson High School, at nearly 130% of its student capacity, as an example of how developers have taken advantage of that loophole.
“It has been used to allow for developments, concentrated numbers of developments in a single area,” Cheikh said. “And that’s been problematic. And downtown Towson is a good example of that.”
Cheikh sits on a task force that will propose ways to change the code, including possibly closing that loophole. It plans to make a report to the county council around the first of the year.
The task force is also examining another part of the code that favors developers. It says schools are not considered crowded until they reach 115% capacity.
Lori Graf, the CEO of the Maryland Building Industry Association, which represents developers, supports the current code. But she expects the task force’s eventual recommendations will mean developers will need to make concessions. Graf cautions that any changes that slow down development would hurt the county’s economy.
“Every house that gets built, you have property taxes and other fees that go to the county,” Graf said. “And all of that won’t happen if you don’t develop certain properties.”
Graf said crowding comes more from young families moving into older neighborhoods, rather than from new development.
She said she expects the building industry will support the task force’s eventual recommendations.