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February 16, 2005

Magic Wand Creates Another Headache

Alan Imhoff

A wave of the magic wand and poof, another school becomes overcrowded even though not one new student was added to the attendance roll.

As reported in a local paper back in January, Deer Crossing Elementary became the latest in a string of schools to go from "under-capacity" to being "over-capacity." The school went from a state-calculated 709 full-time student rating to just 641, almost a 10% reduction in State Rated Capacity (SRC).

Nothing physically changed within the walls, just the designation of instructional use for that space and how the new state formulas apply to those designations. According to the newspaper article, the school went from 92% capacity to 101% overnight with the same 653 students.


Without going into a lot of detail, the principal of each school in concert with the system's facilities staff determine what the various rooms and spaces are to be used for instructional purposes. The state then reviews the floor plan and based on the use, applies a statewide average to that space.

This is where it gets tricky, when Deer Crossing was first approved for construction; grades one to five were rated at a state average of 25 students per classroom, hence the original 709 number. (Note: this is primarily for funding purposes.) As with all good designs the actual instructional floor space may physically be able to accommodate up to 30-plus students in a room (Note: this is for local flexibility).

Deer Crossing opened in 1997 with 595 "equated" students or 84% capacity. (As a reminder "equated" is used to calculate a full-time student where there is day kindergarten.) Deer Crossing has had only 2 years above 100% capacity, in 2000 (105%) and 2001 (101%). Not bad for a new school in a growing community.

For those who might not have been in the county - or might not remember - up until several years ago, elementary schools were considered "overcrowded" at 105% SRC and middle/high schools at 110%, still a fairly consistent national average among public school systems. However a few years ago the Board of County Commissioners decided that when any school was one student about its SRC (100%), it was overcrowded.

So now we have a Board of County Commissioners that can change the percent of what they feel is an overcrowded situation, a principal and staff determining what is instructional space and the state changing averages of what constitutes a "rating" for that instructional space.

So back to Deer Crossing, state funding for construction was based on the 25-student formula and the space was designed for about 30. Now because of the new state average of 23 students the school loses 10% of its capacity, yet the physical space can still accommodate 30. Are you still with me here?

What I described is the easy part; here is where it gets really tricky.

If the school was originally funded for 25 students - and was physically built for 30 - how come there are many classrooms with 32, 33 or 35 students?

Well, seems the state rating game also applies to staffing calculations. So, if we need one teacher per classroom the school system knows how many teachers to hire. If there are 10 classrooms at the original 25 students per, we have 10 teachers for 250 students.

However, if the system can put physically put 33 students in each room, the school can absorb a 32% increase without needing to add another teacher - in theory. Or to put it another way, the school can put the 250 students in eight classrooms instead of 10 and use the teaching "slots" for other positions.

I first became aware of this convoluted system in 1994 while serving as vice-chair of the school systems Future Growth and School Scheduling Advisory Committee. That was the year, if memory serves correctly, when almost 50% of the elementary schools in the county went through the same scenario as Deer Crossing.

When the Tuscarora High School feeder system was under review by the Board of Education, I gave this example: I had one daughter in Frederick High, then at 123% capacity and another daughter at West Frederick Middle, at 92% capacity. I went and received the enrollment in each of their classes; all of them were in the mid 30's.

Then I asked the board, what is worse, a building that is over theoretical capacity or a classroom that is over physical capacity?

It is my belief that as a county we are focusing too much on fluid school building capacity numbers, while not addressing classroom overcrowding. There are a host of alternatives to relieving classroom overcrowding, but only very expensive ones for building new schools.

Doesn't it strike you as odd that we have poured 100's of millions of dollars into public school system buildings, yet all we hear is they are still "overcrowded?" Just imagine where we would be if we stayed with a consistent 25 students per classroom and 105% and 110% overcrowded criteria.

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