The Chicken and the Egg: What Comes First? - New Housing or New Schools (Part 3 on the NCC)
Preface: The County Council may vote on the NCC as soon as tonight’s Legislative session. It’s on the agenda. This vote is a referendum on the Council’s commitment to affordable housing and their support for creating a vibrant cultural-rich downtown Columbia. It’s a big deal.
As we await the vote (whether it happens tonight or not), here is my third piece in my series on the NCC project. It addresses one of the questions that I have grappled with more than any other as a newcomer to Howard County: the relationship between development and school capacity. This issue is a lot broader than just the development of Downtown Columbia as it's applicable to all housing development in HoCo. Let me preface to say that I know this is a controversial and complex topic for which many know much more than I do - I have a lot to learn! - I welcome different perspectives and encourage people to provide their knowledge and share their opinion.
Personally, I strongly support ensuring that Howard County is accessible to people of all income levels and backgrounds. This commitment is what draw me and my family to Columbia. On the other, I also see a serious problem with the absence of funding to ensure school capacity keeps up our growing school enrollment. I'm concerned with a lack of education funding that has led to cutting critical services and increases in class sizes.
So, my ideal is for our county to do both and I'm writing from the bias that I want to tackle our housing needs while addressing our school funding issues. So, from this perspective, here is the third piece in my series that addresses the myths and realities of school capacity and development. So, feel free to disagree, but, I see the best path-forward to addressing school capacity is via economic growth through smart development.
You hear it all the time whenever a new housing proposal is discussed.
How many new students will <insert name of proposed new housing development> yield? Or, we can't build <insert name of proposed new housing development> because we don't have room in our schools. Or, I support new housing, but I also want to make sure we have the schools in place for these new students. I've certainly made that last point myself on multiple occasions.
The question remains. What should come first? Building housing or building schools? In other words, do we put up barriers (moratoriums, APFO, Council roadblocks) on new development or do we continue to build new housing despite school capacity concerns?
First, some facts:
Enrollment in HCPSS schools already exceeds existing school capacity (57,518 students in 2019 for ~56,000 total seats). Enrollment growth of 6,400 students is anticipated over the next 10 years. (Source: 2020 HCPSS Feasibility Study)
To meet this growth, the FY22-31 Capital Budget Request includes projects, if funded and constructed, that could bring approximately 6,000 new seats over the next 10 years (Source: FY22 HCPSS Capital Budget Request).
The estimated cost of adding those 6,000 seats? $1.17 billion. (Source: FY22 HCPSS Capital Budget Request).
In FY21, the County approved $68.7 million to fund school construction, the highest level of county funding in the last 14 years. That means even if we were to continue this historic level of funding school construction year in and year out over the next 10 years, that only gets us about 58% of amount needed.
The school capacity projects that are currently funded and set to be completed over the next 5 years will only bring 1/3 of those needed, or ~2000 new seats (Where will Howard County's next schools be located?, The Merriweather Post)
The remaining 4,000 seats are listed in Long Range Master Plan won't be completed until 2030 or later, and have no funding attached to them. These projects are listed because they will be needed, but don't come with any funding guarantee whatsoever (Source: FY22 Capital Budget Request)
THE PROBLEM: Kids need space in classrooms to learn and thrive. Nobody wants overcrowded schools and nobody wants kids learning in portables. And as the data above shows, our county has a serious school capacity issue that is only set to get worse and we don't have a clear plan to add the school seats that are needed. So, how do we solve it? While it may seem logical that we should stop or significantly limit the development of new housing until classroom space "catches up", the reality is that preventing new development will not actually slow enrollment and will make it harder to build schools that are needed. Let's go through this myth/reality style.
MYTH: Slowing Development will reduce school overcrowding
REALITY: Growth in school enrollment is driven largely by turnover in housing that was built decades ago.
Slowing development of new housing will not slow school enrollment growth and solve our capacity issues. That is because the vast majority of enrollment growth is coming from neighborhood turnover - families with children moving into housing previously occupied by people without children. As long as Columbia remains one of the best places to live and raise a family, young families are going to continue to move here and school enrollment is going to continue to increase. And over the coming years, as baby-boomers move out of their single-family houses, the supply of housing appealing to young families will only increase. And yes, new housing developments that appeals to seniors will accelerate this process. But, only a small percentage of student enrollment growth will be directly attributed to children moving into new multifamily apartments complexes, like those planned for Downtown Columbia. Here is a study from the Chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board that explains this point. Bottom-line is that the growth in school enrollment is happening and no amount NIMBYism is going to stop it.
MYTH: Limiting new development to first address needs of existing residents is the responsible and fiscally prudent thing to do.
REALITY: Limiting development slows economic growth and and cuts off money available for new school construction
It is clear that our existing county revenue structures are insufficient to cover necessary school funding. School Construction is funded through property tax revenue and school surcharge fees (which were recently increased) charged to developers building new residential housing. Economic growth increases our tax base and brings in more money so we can build schools. Conversely, draconian restrictions on development limits revenue growth and reduces money available for school construction. Without increasing revenue through strategic economic/population growth, then the only option available to build schools is through tax increases. Smart tax policies, like the progressive recording tax that was voted down by the Council last Spring, could have provided additional tax revenues to the County for schools, especially when longtime homeowners cash out of the home they have owned for decades. But, in the absence of economic growth and without implementing smart tax policies, we have little chance of coming up with all the money we need for schools. So, while it may seem counter-intuitive and create a situation where we have to constantly playing "catch-up" on school capacity, the best option I see to solve school capacity issue is by strategically increasing our supply of housing and our county's population to grow our tax base. I rather commit to perpetual growth and constantly having to play "catch-up" than economic decline and no money for new schools.
MYTH: We don't have the land available for schools in Downtown Columbia, so we need to reserve the land now.
REALITY: In Downtown Columbia, the problem isn't the land availability, it's the money to build on the land we have.
First, by far, the biggest capacity concern in Downtown Columbia over the coming decade is at the elementary school level. And fortunately, there are three elementary school sites in the HCPSS land bank near downtown Columbia reserved for future elementary schools: Hawthorn Park (Sunny Spring Drive between Cricket Pass and Golden Hook, acquired in 1974), Clary's Forest (Little Patuxent Parkway and Bright Passage, acquired in 2018), and Faulkner Ridge (Marble Faun Lane). Faulker Ridge already has a community center on site that used to be an elementary school until 1983. Modernizing this existing structure would probably be the cheapest and easiest way to quickly add elementary school capacity in Downtown Columbia, but obviously would not be the win of a new modern building. In these cases, the county has already secured the land, now we just need to come up with the money to build the schools.
CONCLUSION: The best course of action to ensure we can fund the necessary school capacity is via a happy medium of strategic growth through development and smart tax policies. This requires careful coordination between HCPSS and County government. Stopping development due to concerns about school capacity is unlikely to solve our school capacity issues and will result in less money available for schools.