District 4 Board of Education Candidates weigh in on future elementary school sites
As described in my post "Where will Howard County's next schools be located?", the county is currently planning to build two elementary schools in the next decade (ES #43 and ES #44 in 2027 and 2031, respectively), with a third (ES #45) at some point thereafter (according to the FY21 Capital Budget Request). HCPSS has identified the Route 1 Corridor, Columbia Town Center, and Turf Valley as the the areas that will experience the greatest growth over the next 5 to 10 years. Accordingly, the next Howard County Board of Education will be responsible for making critical decisions on the location and prioritization of these future elementary school sites. I asked each candidate to answer the following question:
"What are your thoughts on the sites under consideration for construction of new elementary schools in Howard County. What sites would you prioritize and specifically, where do you support building the county’s 43rd elementary school?".
Below are their responses, presented in alphabetical order by last name.
At some point before the Downtown Columbia Plan was passed ten years ago, there had been mention of putting a site for an elementary school within the Merriweather area. That disappeared (a decision with which I disagreed) and now the closest site is Hawthorn. I would like to see that be the ES 44 that is proposed in the long term capital plan. There are three growth areas in the county - Turf Valley, which has no restrictions on building, Columbia, and the Route 1 corridor. We need to carefully monitor each area's growth as a school needs to open at 500-600 students & we need to demonstrate some need to obtain State funding (55% of project cost). At the moment, ES 43 could possibly be Turf Valley, but we don't have land there at the moment. We're going to have to analyze the needs in those three areas with the availability of land.
In District 4 (Downtown Columbia, West Columbia, along with large parts of Fulton and Clarksville), we have a microcosm of development and school demographics that mirror much of county. We have older, established neighborhoods that are experiencing turnover and newer development that is spurring enrollment growth in our schools. Across the county, our schools are full at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. We absolutely need to build more schools. Howard County’s next school to come online will be High School #13 in Jessup. School system administration experts in housing are projecting that after that we need two elementary schools and a middle school.
At this time, the HCPSS plan is for Elementary School #43 to be built at the Mission Road location near High School #13. Given the continued over-crowding in the southeast of the county, I support this position. Likewise, the current HCPSS plan is for Elementary School #44 to be built in the Turf Valley area to address the significant over-crowding in that portion of the county. We do not expect to open a new school in the downtown Columbia area until Elementary School #45.
This past round of redistricting was especially impactful to elementary schools within District 4. Had we on the Board of Education not acted, enrollment at Bryant Woods ES, Pointers Run ES, and Fulton ES would have all been above 120% of their maximum capacity next school year. At the same time, Clarksville ES and Swansfield ES were projected to be the two least utilized elementary schools in the county at 70% and 79% capacity. Through a series of difficult attendance area adjustments, those numbers have improved dramatically and allowed us the time to address our most urgent needs with our extremely limited funds for capital construction.
As we change from electing school board members from the county at large to elections based on individual districts, one of my fears is that Board members will become more provincial – elevating the needs of their individual districts over the needs of the system as a whole. As much as I believe the downtown Columbia area will require an additional elementary school to address growth, I believe the Mission Road and Turf Valley locations have more urgent needs now and in the immediate future to increase capacity – and I would prioritize them appropriately. I will also continue to collaborate and advocate with our funding authorities at both the county and state levels to robustly fund our capital construction needs.
There are compelling arguments to support numerous sites for the 43rd elementary school in Howard County. Prior to the redistricting decision in 2019, Fulton and Pointers Run elementary schools were among those with the highest capacity, along with schools in the western Ellicott City area and several in Columbia including Bryant Woods. While projections for enrollment have been provided after the approved redistribution of children has occurred, the quality of these projections are suspect. Therefore, I would not advocate for a specific site for the next elementary school until we have gathered reliable data on actual enrollments and projections for the new attendance areas. In addition, as a member of the Board of Education, I would encourage consideration of a new model for determining school districts for new residential developments. I would like the Board to consider aligning new developments to the closest schools with capacity. This may mean that a new development in close proximity to an overcapacity school will be sent to a school much further away. While there are certainly challenges with this approach, I believe this could disincentivize rampant new development in already crowded school districts. At a minimum, it would not continue exacerbating the problem of already overcrowded schools.
Note: Matt Levine said he would reply but has yet to respond as of publication. Mike Sheer has dropped out of the race.