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January 23, 2003

Under Which Shell Is The Pea?

Alan Imhoff

The numbers game here in the state is usually about lotteries, slot machines and gambling. But there is another form of numbers game we should look at a little more closely. They are governmental budgets, school enrollment projections, and over-capacity issues at those schools.

This annual guessing game looks at the best estimate from previous years and assigns a probability for achieving new numbers for the future, a mild form of conservative gambling depending on the assumptions used. This article will forego the governmental budgets for now and look at school enrollment projections and how they influence "Full-time Equivalents", or FTE's, for school operating and construction funding.

I've tried to make this simple, but you will need to hang on for the ride. According to a published report on January 16th in the Frederick News Post, the State Department of Education is projecting 36,842 FTE students, up 922 from what the county commissioners had been using (35,920) to plan for fiscal year 2004. Yet the interesting fact here is that according to a published school system report of September 30, 2002, there were already 37,237 FTE students.

Sort of makes you wonder who has what numbers and what might be correct. A sort of "Who's on first, I don't know; no, I don't know is on second, etc." routine. Anyway, what is a full-time equivalent and why is it important? FTE's account for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students who do not go to school all day, hence you need two to count for one seat in a school and funding is based on FTE's. (Yes I know we are heading to all day kindergarten, but let's stick to where we are today.)

To look at this in reality, per the same school report of last September 30th, the system had 38,742 students enrolled and there were 37,237 FTE's. So if what the State says is true for this September, will we experience a net loss of 395 FTE's? Unless, of course, someone might be wrong here. Nah!

So back to the numbers game; depending on the set of projections which governmental body is using, the operational budget will fluctuate as they all try to agree on using the same numbers - not always an easy task. Just a few million dollars one way or another - or what could be called the budget game of chance. Now, on to using FTE's for school capacity and the capital budget that is a bit more complicated.

To increase school seating capacity, an interesting formula game is played combining square footage for instructional stations with curriculum requirements, applying a 90% factor and then stating the seating capacity in FTE's. To illustrate this, let us use Tuscarora High and a theoretical 1,200-seat capacity. In order achieve that rating using the above formula; the building would need to be physically designed for approximately 1,334 seats. (1,334 times 90% = 1,200) This is a reasonable policy that allows for some growth, changes in curriculum and acknowledges the fact that not every student is present every day or even all day.

For years, most of the jurisdictions in Maryland (and for that matter, around the country) used 110% of State Rated Capacity as a benchmark for overcrowded conditions. (This would mean in our example, 1,200 times 110% = 1,320 students; which is surprisingly close to the 1,334 seats it was originally designed for.) Still with me?

Within the past couple of years, the school system has stated one of its goals was to have all schools at 90% of State Rated Capacity and the county commissioners recently amended the test under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) to mirror that. (1,200 times 90% = 1,080.) This now takes a 1,200 seat State rated school, physically designed for 1,334 students and makes it overcrowded at 1,080! Is it any wonder why we have trouble determining real growth in numbers?

As an aside, to put this difference (1,334 minus 1,080 = 254) of 254 physical seats in perspective, at 25 students per classroom, the school now has 10 underutilized teaching stations (a.k.a. classrooms).

If I am mistaken about what the school system and county commissioners use, and they meant physical capacity not State Rated Capacity, then we are right back at the beginning, remember 90% of 1,334 is 1,200. Are you going in circles like I am?

As a community, don't we expect to have simple ways to qualify overcrowding? Don't we expect the assumptions used to calculate budget numbers to be more uniform and, from a gambling perspective, can we afford to pay the taxes necessary every year to keep 10 classrooms underutilized for every new school built under this scenario? Especially if the agencies involved cannot even agree on the numbers for growth to be used in the first place!

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