This is the story of public school enrollment projections that went missing for a time in Harford County and how they led to the discovery of a glitch that affected estimates of school enrollment past and present but hopefully not the future.
Sometime after the beginning of each school year, school officials present the members of the Harford County Board of Education with a report on school enrollment. Normally, such a report includes not only the actual enrollment as of September 30 but also enrollment projections several years out that, among other purposes, help identify future capacity needs. This year, the projections were missing from the report.
The omission was explained at the November 21 school board meeting by Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, as the result of an ‘anomaly’ in the numbers that was still being worked out. He said that the projections would be forthcoming in December. Board members didn’t question the explanation but the unusual report left some outside observers scratching their heads.
Harford County Councilman Dick Slutzky, a regular at school board meetings in his capacity as the Council’s education liaison, said later that he had expected to see the projections as part of the enrollment report to the school board and fully expected they would be available for an upcoming meeting of the Adequate Public Facilities (APF) Advisory Board. Slutzky serves as chairman of the APF Board, which meets twice a year to review the school enrollment projections that help determine if moratoriums are to be imposed or lifted on plans for new residential development, as a way of keeping enrollment and school capacity somewhat aligned.
Comprised of officials from Harford County Government, Harford County Public Schools and a PTA representative, the APF Advisory Board reviews current and projected enrollments as they relate to the local Adequate Public Facilities provisions of the Harford County Code. According to the law, if enrollment exceeds 110% of capacity at a particular school, either in the current year or in projections for any one of the next three years, a moratorium is declared for residential building plans in the affected school attendance area. Conversely, if a moratorium has been in place and enrollment is shown to have dropped to 110% of capacity or lower, the moratorium is lifted and plans for residential development are allowed to proceed. There are two dates each year when the 110% adequacy standard is tested, June 1 and December 1, with the two annual APF Board meetings usually held close to the time of these so-called “testing dates”.
The Plot Thickens
The most recent meeting of the APF Board was held a bit later than usual, and just before the holidays, on December 21st. Attendees included Chairman Slutzky, Vice-Chairman and Harford County Director of Planning and Zoning Pete Gutwald, School Board President Leonard Wheeler and Joe Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, whose office generates the enrollment projections. On the absentee list: the enrollment projections.
Why weren’t the projections available at the December APF Board meeting? “That was my question” Pete Gutwald of P&Z told The Dagger on Friday. It’s Gutwald’s job to include the projections in the Annual Growth Report to the Harford County Council following the December 1 testing date. The Growth Report lets Council members know whether or not school adequacy standards have been met, which in turn determines the status of the moratoriums. Slutzky said that the projections are usually distributed at the December APF Board meeting and he couldn’t remember another such meeting when the school system hadn’t made them available.
Joe Licata of HCPS later told The Dagger that he found a mathematical error when he was getting ready in October to provide the enrollment projections to the school board. Projected elementary school enrollments for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years showed increases of about a couple of hundred students, he said, yet the factors that go into those projections, such as birth rates and residential growth, were either flat or down. Licata said he didn’t want to give the school board the projections until he found the error. Despite the law requiring the December 1 test date for adequate school capacity – a test that requires school enrollment projections three years into the future – Licata said he didn’t bring the figures to the December 21 APF Advisory Board meeting because he hadn’t presented the correct numbers to the school board.
Licata also said that enrollment projections involve hundreds of formulas with calculations spread out on 60 to 70 worksheets that estimate enrollment by grade, by school, by school level and system-wide. The unexplained rise, he said, was limited to the two years noted and that increases didn’t show up in the projections going out to 2018. Because the increases were in the total enrollment figures for all elementary schools and not for a particular school, Licata said he was convinced it was input error; someone had entered a wrong number somewhere that he said could have also been compounded.
As to whether or not the error had been a factor in projections made in prior years, Licata said he thought it was, but didn’t know the source. He speculated that it might have come from something like a change to the entrance age for kindergarten. How far back in time the problem went, Licata said he also didn’t know.
At the December 21 APF meeting, Licata explained about the math error but both Slutzky and Gutwald said that the county needed the projections ASAP, which Licata forwarded to Gutlwald the following day. As for the sudden appearance of the missing projections, Licata says he had already manually reworked the projections before the APF meeting using available historical data and is “98% sure” they are correct. He also said that projections were necessary when state funding was being requested based on capacity needs, but that Harford County Public Schools had no such requests this year.
Enrollment Projections Unveiled – Moratorium Will Be Lifted in Dublin Elementary Attendance Area; All Schools Meet Adequacy Test for Capacity
On December 23, Gutwald included Licata’s projections in the amended Annual Growth Report to the Harford County Council. The projections show that no school in the county is over 110 percent of capacity or is expected to exceed that level in any one of the next three years. So, no new residential moratoriums will be put in place as a result and the moratorium in the Dublin Elementary School attendance area will be lifted. The results were not unexpected in light of comprehensive elementary school redistricting, which was undertaken last year to reduce overcrowding and to balance countywide enrollment with capacity.
Licata said on Friday that the enrollment projections for each year up to 2018 would be given to school board members over the weekend and posted on the school system’s web site sometime Monday. As for the still-unidentified glitch, Licata said he’s still looking for it. After so many years of working out projections, Licata joked that he won’t retire until he finds it. “Now it’s a personal challenge”, he said.
Slutzky said later that he doesn’t see a conspiracy in the strange case of the missing enrollment projections and doesn’t doubt Licata’s explanation, noting the complexity of the calculations and the fact that structural errors are often found in scientific endeavors. But he does expect the mystery to be solved at some point: “By the June 1 testing date, we would expect that they will have this solved in a way that we can all understand.”
Below are the enrollment projections sent to the members of the Harford County Council by Pete Gutwald on December 23, 2011: