Commissioners adopt school seat allocation changes, approve school funding task force

District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) accused her colleagues on the Board of Charles County Commissioners of pandering to developers as she cast the sole vote against passing controversial legislation that will accelerate new residential subdivision construction.

During Tuesday’s virtual open session, the commissioners voted four to one to adopt changes to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities (APF) Manual that will shorten the time that subdivisions have to wait before receiving their allotment of elementary, middle, and high school seats, which the APF Manual requires before construction can begin.

“I am completely disappointed that you are putting the developers in front of the children that attend Charles County public school system,” Stewart said, arguing that the changes will lead to greater overcrowding in schools in and around Waldorf. Stewart also argued that the changes will result in greater overcrowding in Waldorf-area schools and do nothing to wean the county away from its over-dependence on residential property tax revenues.

“If the average resident in Charles County knew what you guys were doing, you wouldn’t do it because you want people to vote for you,” she said.

In proposing the changes, county planning staff pointed out that although the county has offered over 8,000 school seat allocations to developers since 2008, the net increase in the number of students during that time was just 936, which staff said was evidence that seat allocations is not a major driver of student population growth in the county.

District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) proposed several changes to the final language in the APF Manual, all of which the commissioners passed without discussion beyond Stewart’s objections:

  • Development projects that have been on the school allocation eligibility waiting list for at least six years and that have no more than 80 units awaiting school allocations will be granted at least 20 school allocations per year, for a maximum of 250 per year for the whole county.
  • The maximum number of school seat allocations that can be awarded to subdivisions classified as “priority development projects” (PDPs) will be 650 per year, which is less than the 800 per year proposed by the planning department but more than the 400 requested by the Charles County Board of Education.
  • PDPs can also be located in parcels zoned for waterfront planned communities, as well as in the county’s designated development districts as proposed by the planning department, but not including the county’s three federally designated Opportunity Zones.

“I can tell you, I represent everybody in Charles County,” Bowling said in response to Stewart’s accusations. “We run a county-wide election. It’s a really tough balance trying to make sure that our county thrives economically and is able to have the tax base to pay for our schools.”

Bowling had previously proposed allowing the construction of PDPs in the county’s Waterfront Planned Community zone around Swan Point, which is in Bowling’s district. The board of education argued against allowing PDPs in such rural areas due to the limited capacity for expansion of the county’s rural schools.

Bowling also proposed the creation of a task force to offer recommendations on “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. Several opponents of the proposed changes to the school seat allocation policy had urged the commissioners to create such a task force to ensure that school construction keeps pace with student population growth.

Stewart argued that as elected officials, the county commissioners should be the ones to make the decision to forward-fund capital projects. Bowling countered that an independent task force could potentially offer “outside-the-box” ideas for balancing school and residential construction. As with the amendments to the APF Manual, Stewart’s was the sole vote against.

In addition to exempting PDPs 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, 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.

As TLR has previously reported, commercial developer Greenberg Gibbons made the passage of a new school seat allocation policy a contractual prerequisite for proceeding with construction of the new 140-acre Waldorf Station mixed-use transit-oriented development that will straddle U.S. 301 at the intersection of Mattawoman Beantown Road and the future terminus of Western Parkway.

For TLR’s complete coverage of this complex and controversial subject, click here or select “School Seat Allocations” from the “Categories” drop-down menu at right.

illustration: Charles County Government