Schools Downtown: If, When, and Where
Today, a reader of “A Double Negative” asked a couple of good questions about the plan for schools downtown. Not surprisingly, there has been some campaign-related misinformation floating around about this so we were lucky to have someone directly involved weigh in. And, hopefully, this will be the last word on the subject. John Hannay, President of the PTA Council of Howard County, responded in the comments (our emphasis, below):
Mr. Hannay: The line that the downtown development plan contains no provisions for schools is misinformation (if not outright lie) being promoted by Mr. Klein’s campaign. The Plan absolutely contains provisions for schools. I know this because as President of the PTA Council of Howard County I was personally involved in discussions last winter to ensure that the Plan addressed the need for schools.
Last December, an invitation came from Mary Kay Sigaty (who then Chaired the County Council) to the Board of Education (BOE) for a recommendation for how the need for new schools should be handled. The BOE reached out to a number of public education stakeholders (including the PTA Council) for input on the issue. BOE President Ellen Giles and BOE member Alan Dyer were the ones with whom I communicated. I, in turn, consulted with PTA leaders at the three local schools most likely to be affected: Running Brook Elementary (where I currently have a son enrolled), Wilde Lake Middle (where I had a son enrolled…he’s now at Wilde Lake High), and Byrant Woods Elementary (part of the Wilde Lake school cluster).
Out of the various discussions that occurred, the BOE eventually recommended that it be empowered to determine if, when, and where a new school would be needed as development occurred, and that the developers be required to donate the necessary parcel of land to the County School District at that time (if needed). This recommendation was then communicated to Councilmember Courtney Watson (who was then Council Chair) in early January 2010. This recommendation then became part of the legislation, as one of the 90 amendments adopted.
Is there a specific parcel of land identified for schools in the Plan? No, because as stakeholders considered this issue, we felt it was not in the best interest of children and their parents to lock the school system into a particular place or strategy. Further, the Plan only contains provisions for donation of land, which has been the past practice. Generally speaking developers have not been required to pay for school construction (or additions to existing schools), only donate land, when needed. Funds for school construction come from the BOE’s Capital Improvments Budget, which is funded by local taxes and (to a modest extent) state grants.
The dilemma in all of this is that it’s hard to know at this time what will be needed in the way of schools. It depends on what type of housing gets built where, what the current enrollments are at the existing schools and what the ages of those students are, and what the capacities are for renovations and additions (which are generally less expensive) at existing facilities. That’s why the language that’s in the Plan was developed the way it was. Generally speaking it takes 3-5 years to plan and build a new school. Additions and renovations can be done more quickly.
What’s important in the Plan is that the Board of Education controls when the process for building a new school starts and determines generally where land (if needed) has to be found. The school system has long-established formulas for anticipating when new schools or additions will be needed that are fairly adept at ensuring that facilities are present when needed. If a new high school is needed (not considered likely in the near future), there will generally be more lead time to prepare because when families move into new housing they tend to have younger children.
It is clearly stated in the legislation. Item 10 in the Downtown Community Enhancements, Programs, and Public Amenities Implementation Chart (CEPPA Chart) says: “10. GGP shall, if deemed necessary by the Board of Education, reserve a school site or provide an equivalent location within Downtown Columbia.”
In other words, we do not anticipate needing a site now, but if we do need it at some point, we’re covered.
Mr. Hannay (and C2.0 wholeheartedly agrees): While I’ve been a fan of Liz Bobo on a number of other issues, I’ve been most disappointed with her behavior on this one…and I’ve respectfully told her so directly. What’s important now is that eligible voters (registered Democrats) in District 4 who believe that Ms. Sigaty did the right thing in ensuring responsible downtown development now vote in this election.
It’s one thing to cheerlead on Mary Kay’s behalf. What makes the difference is that support for her gets translated into votes. It’s also important to talk with your friends and neighbors about the need to support Mary Kay. Mr. Klein and his supporters are doing their best to create an impression that everyone is moving toward him. Based on door knocking I’ve done on behalf of Mary Kay in my neighborhood, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. So, talk up Mary Kay, and BE SURE TO VOTE.