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School Board warns growth near city could swamp schools

September 30, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Washington County education officials have asked the City of Hagerstown to help make sure space is available for at least 900 students expected eventually to move into one housing development.

Washington County Board of Education President W. Edward Forrest said a letter the school board sent to city officials last week was an effort to push for ways to find money for new schools while highlighting problems with the proposed 1,478-home Mount Aetna Farms development.

"We don't want to be in a crisis situation," Forrest said Wednesday.

Mount Aetna Farms would be built over five to seven years in an area near Robinwood Drive that is just outside city limits. Under a plan being considered, the housing development would be incorporated into the city.

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Officials representing Mount Aetna Farms have discussed the possibility of the development being annexed into the city if a replacement for Washington County Hospital is built near Robinwood Medical Center.

James Quillen, owner of the company developing Mount Aetna Farms, said earlier this month that work on the project could begin as early as next March. At the Sept. 7 briefing before the City Council, project planners did not discuss the impact on schools.

The school board's concerns were outlined in a letter dated Sept. 23.

Mount Aetna Farms "would put extraordinary strain on school facilities capacity. At the moment all City schools are at, near or over capacity," according to the letter, which was signed by all seven school board members.

The letter says that officials believe the development could result in the addition of more than 900 students, which could require Washington County Public Schools to build an elementary school, and create another 403 seats for middle school and high school students.

The school board asked the city to consider imposing some type of fee that would help pay for school construction - such as an adequate public facilities ordinance, or APFO. The board also asked the city to ask the Mount Aetna Farms developers to provide 40 acres for new schools.

Forrest said the need for more school space would exist regardless of whether the development ends up inside or outside the city, but because the city does not have an APFO, money to build new schools will be harder to come by.

Patricia Abernethy, deputy schools superintendent for instruction, said if a new school were not built, the extra students likely would attend Eastern, Pangborn and Potomac Heights elementary schools and the schools to which they feed.

The problem with those schools, Abernethy said, is "they are all full." "It's our job to point out that we are having growth within our schools," Forrest said. With the amount of expected countywide home construction in the next five years, "we're gonna have a problem."

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said this is the first time he's been contacted by school board officials about any growth problems, and said he thinks it's a sign that the school system might not be prepared.

"I think it's coming home," Breichner said.

Breichner said city officials have discussed imposing an APFO or something similar, but are awaiting the results of a study they commissioned earlier this year. Breichner said legal concerns might prevent the city from imposing its own fee because it does not have control over the school system.

"Everyone's in favor of it, we just need to get the mechanism in place," Breichner said.

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