Remember when Harford County public schools were bursting at the seams? Widespread overcrowding has ended thanks to declining enrollment and a school construction boom, but some secondary schools now have hundreds of extra seats. The excess capacity has raised new concerns from state funding authorities and school board members as they consider a plan backed by County Executive David Craig to expand Havre de Grace High School.
Enrollment Down, Capacity Up Since 2005
Enrollment in Harford County Public Schools is down by about 2,300 students since 2005, when published reports show enrollment last peaked at approximately 40,200 students.
Also beginning in 2005, Harford County added 4,000 seats in a $300 million construction program to address chronic overcrowding and modernize school facilities, according to a press release earlier this year from Harford County Government.
The combination of declining enrollment and new school construction, plus redistricting, ended extreme overcrowding for the first time in two decades but spawned a new problem: underutilization at some secondary schools.
Recent additions to secondary school capacity include the new Patterson Mill Middle/High School in Bel Air, plus new high schools in Aberdeen, Edgewood, North Harford and Bel Air. At the urging of County Executive David Craig, Havre de Grace is next in line for a high school upgrade, but school board members and state funding authorities have balked at a proposed $71 million replacement building with increased capacity, in part because the existing facility is underutilized.
The problem of underutilized secondary schools came into focus at a December 17th school board meeting, sparked by an enrollment report for 2012 that was presented by Joe Licata, HCPS Chief of Administration. Local school systems must report enrollment as of September 30th to the state each year, along with enrollment and capacity utilization projections for the following seven years.
The 2012 report showed enrollment was down again this year, dropping by 354 students to 37,868. Licata said that birth rates over the past five years and lower home sales due to the economy resulted in fewer new students coming into the system. Indicating a possible economic turnaround, he said, building permits for new homes were creeping up from an historic low and might affect enrollment beginning in 2017. Projections in the report show enrollment bottoming out at 37,000 students in 2016, and remaining flat through 2019.
Elementary Schools: Hickory Elementary Projected at 111% of Capacity; Overall Projections Flat
The only school attendance area now in a residential building moratorium due to overcrowding is Hickory Elementary in Bel Air, and only because the school is predicted to operate at 111% of capacity in 2015, according to Pete Gutwald, director of the county department of planning and zoning. The threshold for the moratorium is set by the county’s Adequate Public Facilities law at over 110% of capacity in the current year, or projected for anytime in the following three years.
Currently, Hickory Elementary has the highest elementary school utilization rate, at 104% of capacity. Overall, elementary schools are operating at 91% of capacity, with only six of the 33 county elementary schools operating at or above 100%.
Elementary enrollment was up by 43 students to 17,561 in 2012. Enrollment is projected to remain flat through 2019.
Middle Schools Underutilized; Enrollment Projected to Decline
Middle schools are operating at 79% of capacity overall, and no individual middle schools are operating over 100% of capacity. Patterson Mill and Bel Air are the only schools that come close, at 98% and 96%, respectively. The lowest middle school utilization rate is 64% at Magnolia, which has room for 385 more students based on a state-rated capacity of 1073 students.
Middle school enrollment overall dropped by 248 students in 2012 to 8,359. Enrollment is expected to decline to about 7,900 students in 2016 and then remain flat through 2019.
High Schools Underutilized; Flat Enrollment Projected
Accounting for a quarter of the countywide excess of high school capacity, Edgewood is currently operating at 71% of capacity, with room for 507 more students based on a state-rated capacity of 1743. High schools overall are operating at close to 86% of capacity. Utilization is highest at Patterson Mill (102%), Bel Air (99%) and at Harford Tech, the magnet school, which is at 110%.
Overall enrollment in high school was down by 119 students to 11,737 as of September 30, 2012. High school enrollment is projected to decline to under 11, 500 students in 2015 and remain flat through 2019.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Reacting to the 2012 enrollment report, Board Member Bob Frisch said that the drop in high school and middle school enrollment, which he called “precipitous”, would not be offset by incoming elementary students at current rates. If not reversed, he said the trend would “only exacerbate our problem of excess capacity at the high school level.”
Noting that utilization at Fallston High School was projected to drop from the current 70% to 59% by 2016, Board Member Jim Thornton asked Licata, “What is our strategy to deal with the underutilization of our high schools?”
Licata said that nationally, school boards have combined, consolidated or closed schools. Redistricting, Licata said, had been done in the past between Fallston, Bel Air and C. Milton Wright to deal with growth in the Bel Air area, and may have to be reconsidered if growth recurred. The state requires local school systems to look at schools that fall below 60% of capacity, Licata said, although actions such as school closings are not required.
Board Vice President Nancy Reynolds noted that enrollment at Havre de Grace High School, which has capacity for 850 students, was projected to be below 600 students by 2015, with Havre de Grace Middle School projected to have fewer than 500 students by 2014. The middle and high school are currently operating at 69% and 79% of capacity, respectively.
The school board has requested local planning approval from the state for an upgrade to Havre de Grace High, but has twice delayed a vote on a $71 million replacement option that is strongly supported by County Executive Craig.
The replacement option also includes an expansion of the high school’s capacity up to 1,148 students, roughly equal to the combined middle and high school enrollment projected through the year 2019. The board has asked Superintendent Tomback to evaluate more options, including a combination middle and high school.
Before the latest enrollment figures were released, Craig said on December 3rd that the classroom capacity in a replacement building could be scaled back to save money, but the common areas such as the gymnasium and cafeteria should be built to accommodate 1,100 students, to allow for future growth. Craig also said at the time that he opposed a combined middle and high school.
The state Interagency Committee on School Construction has thus far denied planning approval for the Havre de Grace project, which is required for future state funding. Responding to Reynolds’ observations about the latest enrollment projections for Havre de Grace, Licata said that the state was “keenly aware” of capacity and enrollment figures and would require the school system to consider a number of scenarios before state funds would be released. Reynolds replied, “My point, exactly.”
Below is the 2012 enrollment report presented to the school board on December 17th: