2021 HCPSS Feasibility Report projects significantly reduced enrollment growth in Downtown Columbia

The 2021 Feasibility Study has been released by the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) in advance of tomorrow's (June 10, 2021) school board meeting where it will be presented. H/T to Board member Vicky Cutroneo for an early posting of the report on her public Facebook page. The report should be posted on the HCPSS school planning website shortly.


The annual feasibility study is prepared by the HCPSS Office of School Planning to provide a comprehensive look at the ten-year K-12 student enrollment projections. The intent of the document is to provide the most updated student enrollment projection to the Board of Education, staff members and the public to inform capital and operating decision, such as facilities planning, new school construction, school renovations, relocatable classrooms and attendance area adjustments. The analysis considers students yielded from existing home sales, apartment turnover, and planned new housing units. It is important to note that future capacity projects examined in the report are recommendations that are subject to change and require capital budget approval in order to be implemented.


Of particular interest for families in the Downtown Columbia area is that the 2021 Feasibility Report has updated projections showing that estimated enrollment growth at the elementary level in Downtown Columbia has been significantly reduced from prior estimates. While capacity utilization of downtown Columbia elementary schools remains a concern, it does not appear to be nearly as significantly of an issue as previous estimates projected.

The 2020 Feasibility Study released a year ago projected a 500-seat deficit in elementary school capacity in the Downtown Columbia area by SY 2028-29. Accordingly, the 2020 Feasibility Report suggested that ES #44 (slated to be built for that same year 2028-29) should be built in the western Columbia area to alleviate capacity in and around Downtown. However, the updated 2021 Feasibility Study revised these enrollment projections. Now, enrollment projections show that only an additional 125 seats are needed in the Downtown School cluster by 2030 to keep the area within target utilization. Accordingly, ES#44 is no longer slated to be built in Downtown Columbia - instead, ES #44 is now recommended to be built in Turf Valley per the new Feasibility Report. The Downtown Columbia area will now wait for ES #45. The HCPSS land bank sites of Hawthorn Park (6195 Sunny Spring) or Clary's Forest (Little Patuxent Parkway and Bright Passage) would be the most likely candidates for a new elementary school in the Downtown area whenever one is ultimately built.


The 2021 feasibility study explains (page 26):

With over 4,500 new apartments and condos planned for Downtown Columbia, utilization at Bryant Woods ES, Running Brook ES, and Clemens Crossing ES remains a concern. Boundary adjustments adopted in 2019 reassigned the Crescent and Symphony Woods areas of Columbia Downtown to Bryant Woods ES, with Running Brook ES retaining the Lakefront area. Updated projections show enrollment growth at Bryant Woods ES from 2020 through 2030, with Running Brook ES remaining under 100 percent through 2029. Swansfield ES will also experience some enrollment growth with new development in the Robinson Overlook area beginning in 2021. Following boundary adjustments adopted in 2019, Clarksville ES now serves this area as well. Clarksville ES and Longfellow ES do not show significant enrollment growth in the ten-year projection, with both schools remaining within target utilization through 2030. Previous projections had forecast tremendous amounts of enrollment growth in this area due to continuing development of Downtown Columbia. While this development is ongoing, the impacts to enrollment have been less than anticipated. Projections show an additional 125 seats should keep this group of schools within target utilization through 2030. The demand for early childhood programs and supports related to Title I status places additional pressure on the available capacity in this region.

While the news that a new elementary school building may not be built in the Downtown area for at least another decade may be disappointing for young families in the area, it's clearly good news for those of us concerned about overcrowding in Downtown Columbia's existing schools that enrollment growth from the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia is not projected to be nearly as high as previously anticipated.


The Long-Range Master plan described in the 2021 Feasibility Report includes building 2 new elementary schools in the county over the next ten years, currently planned for 2025-26 (ES #43 slated for the Laurel area) and 2028-29 (ES#44 now slated for the Turf Valley area). A third future elementary school - ES #45 - which had been included in the long-range plan of the 2020 Feasibility Report to be built in 2030-31 has dropped off the 10 year long-term master plan list in the 2021 Feasibility Report. The updated report notes that New ES#45 (Downtown Columbia) will not be needed until after the current Long-Range Master Plan period (so, SY 2032-33 or later).


The 2021 Feasibility Study does strongly hint at repurposing the existing Faulkner Ridge Community Center (10598 Marble Faun Lane) into a regional early childhood center in the near term to accommodate early childhood needs for preschoolers in the western Columbia / Downtown area. If completed, this move is estimated to free up 15-20 classrooms in existing west Columbia elementary schools that are currently being used for preschool and repurposing them into more K-5 classrooms. Thus, reopening Faulkner Ridge as a regional childcare center would create new capacity in several nearby Downtown Columbia elementary schools and address the projected shortfall of 125 seats.


See the 2021 Feasibility Report (page 29).

In Western Columbia, recent additions and boundary adjustments have set this region up to accommodate projected enrollment growth through 2030. Relocatable classrooms at Bryant Woods ES, Running Brook ES, Clemens Crossing ES, and Clarksville ES provide additional flexibility and temporary capacity. Projections beyond 2030 indicate need for a 45th elementary school to serve this region. Fortunately there are three sites in the land bank for this project. In the near term, consideration should be given to opening a regional early childhood center in this area. If this facility were to accommodate all early childhood needs for the Western Columbia area, it is estimated 15- 20 classrooms could be repurposed for K-5 capacity in existing elementary schools by 2030. These would be classrooms currently used for early childhood programs in elementary schools, that could be converted to K-5 use and counted toward capacity. As part of a larger, long term study of strategies to address regional program needs, all sites in this area, starting with Faulkner Ridge should be evaluated.

There is no mention in the Feasibility Report of retrofitting or modernizing any of the older school buildings in the Downtown Columbia area that are in need of renovation, such as Bryant Woods Elementary.


The report does not go into details on the reasoning behind the change in enrollment projections.


To illustrate how the enrollment projections of Downtown elementary schools have changed between the 2020 and 2021 Feasibility Reports, please see the following tables. Note how Bryant Woods (which serves the Merriweather District and Mall area) and Running Brook (which serves the Lakefront) capacity utilization has been adjusted downwards from 2020 to 2021.



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