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The Tentacle


November 18, 2003

Katie! Bar The Door!

John W. Ashbury

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they want to throw up their hands and scream. That time is coming rapidly for all of us, unless local and state officials get their acts together and solve the school construction problems.

There is little doubt, and no evidence to remove it, that there are schools in Frederick County which are bulging at the seams. One classic example is Ballenger Creek Middle, now operating at 133 percent of its state-rated capacity.

Then there are Linganore and Urbana high schools hovering around 120 per cent capacity. But this is somewhat misleading in that so many upper class students leave after one or two periods per day and go a local college to take classes, or retire to work study. Of course, we must consider the absentee rate that runs between six and eight percent each day.

(NOTE: We have 39,390 permanent seats in our schools, but we have 37,590 “equated” students, or a total “actual” student count of 39,004. Therefore, we have 386 “empty” seats.)

So Frederick County Public School officials, including the school board itself, over dramatize the problem and demand that we the taxpayers spend several hundred million dollars over the next six years to “alleviate” this situation.

And on the other side of Church Street, the county commissioners have been forward funding school construction because the state has not been proving the county with enough funds to keep up with the exploding population as it occurs. Currently the state owes the county more than $9 million in construction funds for Tuscarora High.

Over at the state level, officials develop analysis and projections which say that Frederick County could well experience a negative school population with the next couple of years, and certainly before 2012, just nine years from now, and just three years after the current CIP is built out.

The commissioners are proposing tax increases to offset the cost of the CIP. First is what they call an “excise tax,” but which, in reality, is a transfer tax on every house that is sold in the county, except new construction which is already taxed with a $7,000 impact fee.

Secondly, the commissioners are considering a proposal by their colleague Jan Gardner, which would impose what she calls a “fair share tax” on new homes to the tune of more than $12,000 per house. She does propose, however, that, if this tax passes, the county get rid of the impact fee.

The state is in dire straits financially, as everyone knows. So we can expect little in the way of state funds to help with our school construction needs. Besides, with its own demographics, which seems to be a lot more accurate that those laid out by local school officials, saying our students population will begin to drop within the decade, why bother to give us what we need.

Certainly the new East County High School is a necessity. Linganore High needs extensive renovations, in the neighborhood of $50 million. And Urbana needs an addition. And with the housing projects already approved in Brunswick, which will eventually add 1,500 homes there, something must be done, and done NOW.

The sad part of all of this is that everyone is going in their own directions, coming up with solutions that the other parties won’t accept.

The county’s delegation to Annapolis, which must approve the tax increase proposals, isn’t likely to do that. And if the commissioners, in a fit of pique, decide to raise the impact fee to the level of Ms. Gardner’s “fair share” tax, look for some in the delegation to sponsor legislation capping impact fees.

On the north side of East Church Street, the school board and its imperial staff, stick their heads in the sand and continue to demand the biggest and the best, knowing full well “it ain’t gonna happen.”

And the school board even has the audacity to authorize a committee to examine just where it can put its entire administrative staff in one location in downtown Frederick. They don’t seem to understand that, while the public may be willing to reach deeper into its pockets to fund that which will benefit the student in the classroom, building posh new quarters for administrators “ain’t gonna fly.”

So, is it time to reach for the sky and scream? Perhaps!

The county commissioners, the members of the delegation to Annapolis, the Board of Education, and the state officials, who decide what school projects can and cannot be built with state funds, need to be locked in a room and the key thrown away until they come up with a solution.

It makes no sense whatsoever to waste taxpayers’ money planning new facilities that won’t be built.

It makes no sense for the commissioners to belabor the point and even discuss new funding mechanisms (taxes) when they know full well they won’t get the authority to impose.

It makes no sense for the state to continue to flow money into Frederick County Public School construction projects, when its figures say that with the next 10 to 12 years we are likely to close schools because the student enrollment is dropping like a rock.

It makes no sense for all these groups to march to their own drummer with little or no consideration of all the others involved in the parade, who just happen to be doing the same thing.

There are other means to resolution. However, there are obstacles to them.

School officials don’t seem to have the intestinal fortitude to withstand parental pressure because Little Johnnie and Little Janie might have to attend a different school. (Read that redistricting!)

The county commissioners want to get re-elected, so they kowtow to a few screaming parents who want their little darlings to have the be-all-and-end-all of everything, and have everyone else contribute to the cause.

And some members of the delegation to Annapolis make ill-advised, and just plain stupid promises not to raise taxes, or create new ones, even for worthwhile projects.

Unless all four groups put aside their petty claims on just who came up with the solution, there won’t be one. They must work together and be WILLING to compromise.



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