Commissioners hear school seat policy arguments

Several Charles County Public Schools board members reiterated their concern that the school board had not been adequately consulted on a series of proposed changes to the way the county allocates school seats to new subdivisions during a public hearing Tuesday evening before the Board of Charles County Commissioners.

“We believe that there has been a lack of transparency throughout this process,” school board chair Virginia McGraw told the county commissioners and planning staff during the virtual hearing.

McGraw argued that while previous proposals to change the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Manual — which provides standards and guidance for managing development and growth — involved the convening of a committee that included public schools staff and board of eduction members in order to address concerns and forge compromises, “[t]his did not happen this time around.”

Instead, McGraw said, the county government developed the proposed changes in secret, and that the board was caught by surprise when the county announced the changes earlier this summer.

“This lack of transparency contributed to the lack of collaboration with the Charles County Board of Education and the commissioners for such an important issue that affects our schools,” McGraw concluded, asking the commissioners to keep the record open for public comments for an additional 30 days — a request that several others who signed up to speak at the public hearing also made.

Under current law, construction of a planned subdivision is not allowed to proceed until there are enough openings in the community’s elementary, middle, and high schools to accommodate the anticipated number of children that will be living in that subdivision. However, it can take years or even decades before enough school seats open up in all three schools to allow a project to proceed.

Further complicating matters, although the 2016 Comprehensive Plan stipulates that three-quarters of future growth should be concentrated in the county’s designated development districts, in practice the majority of new development that has been approved is located outside those districts.

As TLR has previously reported, 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.

These 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.

In June, the county commissioners instructed the planning department to add new subdivisions located in the county’s three Opportunity Zones — economically distressed districts where investors can receive tax incentives for undertaking development projects — to the list of conditionally exempted developments, should the proposed changes be voted into law.

The proposed changes also include a sunset provision that awards half of the school seats to a project after five years on the school seat waiting list and releases the balance of the seats if the project is still on the waiting list after six more years.

CCBOE vice-chair Tina Wilson and board members Elizabeth Brown, David Hancock, and Michael Lukas joined McGraw in offering public comments during the hearing, as did public schools staff members Steve Andritz and Mike Heim.

“Students have the most to lose when adults who make decisions that affect a student’s education, do not work together and take into consideration how these changes can affect the student’s ability to learn,” Brown said, expressing concern about the effects of overcrowding and encouraging the commissioners to keep the public record open for another month before making a decision on the proposed changes.

Lukas cautioned that the proposed changes, if implemented, would result in greater crowding in schools located in the PFAs and Opportunity Zones. Hancock requested that the proposed cap on the maximum number of school seats that can be allocated to priority development projects be cut in half from 800 seats per year to 400 as a means to ease that overcrowding. Wilson pointed out that the proposed changes would require additional funding for school maintenance and new construction in order to keep pace with the increased enrollment, when the system is already struggling to fund upkeep at existing student levels.

Most of the 21 people who spoke during the meeting echoed the concerns expressed by the board of education members, though several callers encouraged the commissioners to adopt the proposed changes.

“Charles County already has one of the most conservative school allocation policies in the state of Maryland,” attorney Sue Greer pointed out. “This ordinance, as written, is actually a very conservative approach. It does not, unlike what I’ve heard, open the floodgates to overgrowth and a flood of school allocation. Instead, it targets growth where the county’s comprehensive plan targets it.”

John Mudd, the county’s former assistant chief of planning, said that the proposed changes actually “provide a greater degree of fairness and predictability to what will remain a stringent and restrained school allocation program.”

“It is readily apparent and proven that the county maintains a huge and abundant number of unused school allocations on a continuing annual basis,” Mudd said. “This proposed decision is simply the county commissioners granting [themselves] permission to set aside a measured amount of the abundant school allocations that exists within the program.”

Resident Alyssa Cox, a recent college graduate struggling to afford a place to live in Charles County, said that the changes would increase the county’s stock of affordable workforce housing.

“Like most recent graduates, I’m not in a position to purchase a home,” Cox said. “Even if I were, I could not afford one in Charles County at the moment, where the housing prices continue to rise and the supply is limited. Apartment and townhome rentals are also very limited and very expensive.”

Under the proposed changes to the county APF manual, new subdivisions can only receive a priority development project designation if at least a quarter of the proposed mixed-use properties are set aside for families whose combined income doesn’t exceed 80% of the county’s average family income. That number is not spelled out in the county’s supporting documents, but according to the latest data from the United States Census Bureau, the median household income in Charles County between 2014 and 2018 was just under $96,000.

A study by the American Planning Association released last year found that a third of Charles County’s households spend 30% or more of their gross annual income on rent and mortgage, while almost 7,000 county households spend over half of their gross income on those things.

Greer also advocated taking a county-wide look at school capacity, rather than focusing solely on priority development projects in the PFAs and Opportunity Zones.

“When you’re in a school that’s under-crowded or [where] there’s underutilization, you are missing opportunities because you can’t participate in a club or a class activity or a sport,” Greer argued. “Those are missing opportunities for those children. And that has an impact on those children. Those children are already in areas where we’ve seen, in the pandemic, that there’s an internet disparity. Let’s not create another disparity for those children, because we’re doing them a disservice.”

Following the public testimony, the county commissioners voted unanimously to keep the public record open until November 20. You can read TLR’s complete coverage of the school seat allocation issue here.