The topic of school capacity is one that I hear often, most recently at a Greater Severna Park Council meeting in late 2019. At the time, Oak Hill Elementary was considered an “open” school by county standards, and frustrated parents wanted to understand how new homes were being constructed.
The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) is a mechanism that is in place to balance growth and the impact on infrastructure, including schools, fire suppression, roads, water and sewer.
For schools, it is the school utilization chart. This county council unanimously supported legislation to close elementary and middle schools from major subdivision (more than five homes) when an elementary or middle school reaches 95% capacity. High schools close when they are at 100%. The county council votes on this chart every year. It was not intended to be a real-time instrument, though it has great importance. By law, the chart uses the most recent state certified enrollment, and projected enrollment based on the Educational Facilities Master Plan created annually by the school board, county and state. The current chart, passed in February of 2020, used the certified student enrollment from 2018 and the projected enrollment from 2019. It was this chart that closed Oak Hill Elementary as well as a handful of other schools in the county.
New construction is a lengthy process. From first application to a shovel in the ground, the process can be three to six years on average. A major subdivision (more than five homes) proposed in a closed school area is placed on a wait list of six years before they can build.
While the adequate public facilities ordinance is focused on new construction, organic growth also increases student populations. Our district is one of the most sought-after areas in the county for home buying. In 2019, 434 homes were purchased in the Severna Park zip code, 46 of those in the Chartwell community; 421 homes were purchased in the Arnold zip code and the majority were existing homes. While there is no data on the number of children this added to area schools, it is safe to assume some portion of these existing home sales had an impact. However, there is no mechanism to address that growth.
In recent weeks, members of the Severna Park community have reached out to my office with concerns over a bill introduced by one of my colleagues. Bill 12-20 creates an exemption to the capacity law. It allows residential housing projects to circumvent the adequate public facilities test for schools as long as the project is awarded funding from low-income housing tax credits by the Maryland Department of Housing and Communities, and if at the time of their application for the tax credit, schools were open; or if at the time of testing for adequate public facilities an elementary or middle school is not above 98% capacity and a high school is not above 105% capacity. The project can be no more than 50 units.
To give background on projects awarded these tax credits, they must be awarded the credits before they submit development applications to the Department of Planning and Zoning. There are roughly four applications submitted to the state every year to build in Anne Arundel County. One project per year has been awarded the credit in our county for the past two years. Once awarded this tax credit, the developer has three years to complete the project or funding is lost.
While the bill is narrowly tailored for a specific project outside of the fifth district, it applies countywide. It would allow a project that fits the criteria and funding by the state to locate in the Severna Park Middle feeder area, a school that is at 97% capacity.
In addition to the potential future impacts for our district, the larger picture also gives me pause. Some schools that would become open under this bill have 50% or more of their students who qualify for free and reduced meals. These are the schools that do more with less. What are the unintended consequences for the students and teachers in those schools? How does a council vote unanimously in favor of stricter capacity laws, and then create a loophole above that? Are we prioritizing the need for affordable housing over the burden on our schools, students, teachers and families? These are the considerations I am giving this bill.
The public hearing for this bill, along with more than a dozen other bills, has been held up indefinitely due to the COVID-19 health emergency and restrictions. COVID-19 has created a level of uncertainty, fear and anxiety for many residents in the county. While your federal, state and local leaders work to address those concerns, I hope you and your family find the silver linings. For my family, I am enjoying that I am present for more moments than usual, such as enjoying the sunshine when it is out, taking long walks and having conversations with my children I may otherwise not have had. I wish you all silver-lining moments, wellness and health. We are in this together.
I am always here for you and your family and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.