Planning department responds to school allocation policy concerns

Planning and Growth Management Department deputy director Jason Groth on Tuesday rebutted claims by members of the Charles County Board of Education that there has been a lack of transparency over proposed changes to the method the county uses to allocate school seats in new subdivisions.

“I think we’ve been very transparent, in all honesty,” Groth told the Board of Charles County Commissioners during Tuesday’s virtual open session. “I just think that there are still concerns on their side with what’s being proposed. There’s a difference between transparency and being in sync on all the aspects of the policy.”

School board chair Virginia McGraw had publicly leveled the charge against the county back in October. McGraw argued that the county failed to convene a committee to review a series of proposed changes to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Manual, which provides standards and guidance for managing development and growth.

The net effect of the proposed changes, which were unveiled in July, would be to accelerate the approval of new residential subdivision construction by easing up on the brakes imposed by school seat caps.

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.

As TLR has previously reported here, here, here, and here, 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 similarly exempt new subdivisions located in the county’s three Opportunity Zones — economically distressed districts where investors can receive tax incentives for undertaking development projects — from the school allocation policy under certain conditions.

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.

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.

Groth told the commissioners that planning department staff met with board of education members in early September to brief them on the proposed changes “and we attempted to clarify those transparency issues,” he said. “I think there [were] just some misunderstandings.”

With regard to the proposal to establish a committee to review proposed changes to the APF manual, Groth said that the last time the county tried that approach, in 2013, the committee had been unable to achieve a strong consensus after meeting for two years, and ultimately the then-board of county commissioners did not act on the few recommendations that the committee did pass.

“The idea of creating that [advisory committee] again would be concerning,” Groth said. “I can only offer you our advice on past experiences. I certainly would leave that up to the will of the board.”

By the time the extended public comment period on the proposed amendments to the APF manual ended on Nov. 20, the county had received 176 comment letters. Groth said that of those, 139 were in favor of the changes and 37 were opposed. Those numbers contrasted sharply with the public testimony during the Oct. 20 public hearing before the county commissioners, during which 16 callers spoke in opposition and four in favor, with one comment characterized as having been neutral.

Other concerns expressed by board of education members and members of the public include what they describe as the excessively large geographic boundaries of the applicable priority development areas, a too-high annual cap on the number of school seats allocated to priority development projects, and what they argued were overly long lifespans for new allocations and priority development projects.

Groth argued that the proposed changes to the APF manual would rationalize the school seat allocation process.

“The school allocation policy is something that we wanted to create predictability within, for the [county] commissioners, the board of education, and the development community, [to] encourage growth in the designated growth areas, and also to encourage mixed use development as well as affordable and workforce housing development,” Groth said.

The county commissioners unanimously agreed that they needed additional time to consider the pros and cons of the proposed changes, and asked for an additional briefing at their next open session on Dec. 8.

“I think that there’s a fine balance between making sure that we keep our schools as … high a quality as we can, but also understand that … the growth in the County also helps pay for some of the bills that we are going to have to encompass as we want to provide more services to our community members,” said District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D).

Bowling said that during a virtual legislative breakfast that county commissioners attended with members of the state delegation and the board of education on Nov. 30, he had been “a little bit in shock” to learn from the board of education that they were now projecting a decline in county school enrollment.

“It almost contradicted the notion that, moving forward, we’re going to be overcrowded,” Bowling said. “So I think we really need to take a hard look.”

District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) encouraged her colleagues to approve reducing the cap on school seats allocated to priority development projects from the proposed 800 to 400, which the school board also supports, and to limit the changes to new subdivisions in the Opportunity Zones rather than on those in the development districts. Bowling, in contrast, proposed adding waterfront planned communities to the list of eligible areas.

Stewart also suggested establishing a mechanism for allowing developers to seek an extension if changes in state law threaten to cause their projects to fall behind schedule more than two years. One of the proposed changes to the APF manual would automatically void a development agreement under such circumstances.

Stewart disagreed with one idea proposed in public comments, that the county set up a separate committee to look at “forward-funding” the county’s capital and operating budgets to accommodate future school construction. Forward funding is the practice of setting aside funds in one fiscal year with the intention of spending them in a future year. Stewart said that as elected officials, the county commissioners should be the ones to make the decision to forward-fund a project.

Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) noted that there is precedent for the forward funding of schools in Charles County, saying that in the early 2000s the county commissioners under then-president Murray Levy (D) proposed forward-funding school construction for 10 years, which led to the construction of several schools, though further work was ultimately undermined by the 2008 economic recession.

“At the end of the day, [the proposal] provides us an opportunity to … establish a … very structured approach to how we actually grow in the future,” Collins said. “And I think this is a very important discussion for us.”

illustration: Charles County Government