Concerns over school seat allocations aired

Charles County Board of Education chair Virginia “Ginny” McGraw told the Board of Charles County Commissioners on Wednesday that the board was “very disappointed” by the commissioners’ decision to move ahead with proposed changes to school-related county ordinances without first seeking input from the school board.

The school board raised its concerns during a virtual joint meeting with the county commissioners to discuss a series of proposed changes to the county’s adequate public facilities (APF) manual, which provides guidance for managing development and growth. The board is concerned about a set of changes that it believes would lead to greater overcrowding in county schools unless the county also invests in the construction of more classrooms.

“It is very concerning for the school system [that the commissioners are considering] the proposed change for adding the priority funded areas, which includes other areas of Waldorf, but also extends out into the … La Plata area, and even to the Western part of the County towards Indian Head, and also including Southern areas of the County of Newburg and Cobb Island,” said Michael Heim, the school system’s assistant superintendent for supporting services.

The proposed revisions to the APF manual include changes to a development category called “priority development projects” that are exempt from other policies that county planning officials use to determine whether existing school facilities can adequately accommodate the number of students living in a proposed residential or mixed-use subdivision.

Priority development projects would be located in the county’s so-called “priority funding areas,” or PFAs, which are eligible to receive state funding to support growth and development. Charles County’s PFAs include Indian Head, Bryans Road, and the Route 301 corridor extending from the Prince George’s County line south to La Plata and Port Tobacco.

“We’re concerned about the effect that that would have beyond that priority development area and the effect it would have on those schools in those outlying areas,” Heim told the commissioners. “As history has shown, we’ve expected growth in the Waldorf area, and we’ve … dealt with that the best we can through new school construction, through portable classrooms, and through redistrictings over over the years. But as that potentially expands into areas of La Plata [and] even the areas further west and south, that is concerning to the school system.”

Heim also encouraged the county commissioners to reduce by half the number of school seats that would be awarded annually to priority development projects, from 800 to 400. Heim explained that the potential influx of up to 800 new students across the county every year would strain existing resources and force the school system to increase the number of students per classroom in affected schools.

“Additional capacity provided by the use of portable classrooms is no longer part of the variables that are considered in determining the amount of available capacity for allocations, so the language needs to be removed from the current policy,” said a written statement submitted by the school board prior to Wednesday’s session. “[Charles County Public Schools] does not believe that the proper long-term solution for enrollment growth is placing portable classrooms at a school [just] because it is the least expensive avenue.”

According to school board statistics, Charles County’s school system has the third-highest number of portable classrooms in the state, behind only Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The school board also does not support a number of other proposed changes to the APF manual that would affect the timeline for reviewing and approving school seat allocations for new developments, including a sunset provision for projects that have been on the school seat allocation waiting list for many years.

School board director of planning and construction Steve Andritz, school superintendent Dr. Kimberly Hill, and school board members Jennifer Abell, Michael Lukas, and David Hancock also echoed the concerns expressed by Heim.

“This board of education, as they’ve said earlier, are not anti-development,” Hill said. “They have — we have — worked very hard, collaboratively, to support the Waldorf Station project.” Hill added that the board also supports initiatives to boost affordable housing in the county, which would benefit teachers.

“I don’t think it’s one or the other,” Hill said. “I think that there is a way that, working together, we can try to meet both of those goals of controlled development and responsible development at the same time as providing more workforce housing for our community.”

“If you expand these PFAs and allow these sunset provisions to take place, we really are going to have a lot going on relatively quick without a lot of funding to address that problem,” Hancock warned.

Despite the ongoing tension between the board of education and the county commissioners over the proposed changes, the tone of the joint meeting was cordial, if somewhat stiff, with participants taking turns reading prepared statements into the record while eschewing debate or back-and-forth discussion.

“I hear all your concerns and I’ve actually gotten a lot of feedback from the community. I think it echoes a lot of what you’re saying,” said District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D). “I think for us trying to meet somewhere in the middle where the students benefit and economic development benefit is the way to go.”

Bowling said he supported “forward-funding” school construction in the county, but current state policies regarding school funding made that a challenge.

District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) said that she had a number of concerns about the proposed changes that echoed those of the school board, but that there was “room for collaboration” between the two boards.

“What I want to do is to have a conversation with staff … to talk about every point that you brought up today of concern, and then maybe my colleagues and I, we can come back and we can reevaluate the current policy [and the] projected policy with your concerns. And then we can have a followup conversation with the folks that are on this call right now.”

“I’m asking this not to be the last call … to discuss this,” Stewart said.

Heim and Andritz were among a dozen county residents, including two school board members, who testified about the proposed changes during a public hearing before the Charles County Planning Commission in mid-August. Most of the testimony was in opposition to the proposed changes, citing the threat of overcrowding, while supporters pointed to the need for more affordable housing in the county.

The currently seated planning commission originally called for a review of the county’s process for allocating school seats to new residential construction projects, after concerns from local developers that the process — described by planning department deputy director Jason Groth as the most restrictive in the state — was causing a backlog of new projects.