Complex solution to elementary problem

October 24, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

At lunchtime, just try to get in the door at the Downsville General Store these days. Contractor pickups - electricians, plumbers, masons - fill the parking lot and are lined up and down Downsville Pike as crews pile in to order subs and sandwiches before heading back to their jobs - where?

Downsville proper doesn't look any different from past days: A few older homes, a church and a meeting hall and not a whole lot else.

But there is plenty of work around here somewhere, and to find the answers you have to burrow a little further into the countryside. Any direction will do.

For example, just a few miles to the southeast, a narrow, country road suddenly opens up to a broad boulevard, winding up a knoll past new, $400,000 estates.


Along with hearty chow, the Downsville General Store also sells guns, fishing rods and bait, traditional staples of folks in the area. But to judge from the style and price of the homes going up nearby, it may soon pay the owners to expand their inventory to stock prosciutto and anchovy paste alongside the nightcrawlers.

It's said of bedroom communities that new residents don't have a lot of impact on the area. They get up and leave before dawn to jobs to the east and don't return until after dark. Like raccoons, you don't see them much during the day.

This is true up to a very important point. That being, when the parents head out of the county every day, their kids don't go with them.

This week, the Washington County School Board was busy issuing warnings to anyone who would listen about increasingly crowded conditions in local classrooms.

Ten schools - nearly 25 percent of the county's total - are over capacity, while 12 others are knocking on the door. Nine of the 10 past capacity are elementary schools, which is not good, since it appears this wave of overcrowding is likely to begin marching its way up the grades, eventually affecting middle and high schools as well.

If I may inject a brief silver lining here, school enrollments coupled with housing prices would indicate a significant amount of the local growth is fueled by young professional families with good earning power.

Sooner or later, some of these educated, energetic types will tire of making the daily drive and begin to look around for entrepreneurial start-up opportunities here. The seeds of the high-tech-job dreamscape we so often talk wistfully about are probably being planted as we speak.

The go-getters now working for someone else in the cities will mature and look to start their own enterprises. And by that time, this wave of better-educated children will be graduating and capable of making up a local, high-tech workforce.

Good news for the county government in the year 2015.

But the fish we have to fry now has a few more bones. School enrollment grew 2.1 percent in the past year, quite a wake-up call after the last decade when enrollments were stable, if not slightly declining.

Washington County Schools COO William Blum this week took the rather dramatic step of asking the City of Hagerstown to block a planned, upscale housing development east of the city that would generate 1,400 homes and 900 students.

As Blum notes, this is an entire new school or two unto itself, in a day when it's already projected that we will need $171 million in new school construction over the next seven years.

But while asking the sun to stand still may have worked for Joshua, it's less likely to succeed in the supply-and-demand world of housing. Just like drugs, when you shut down one market, another will pop up to take its place. Or two.

Second, these 1,400 homes and 900 kids aren't going to instantly materialize next May 16 at 2:30 p.m. Grand-scale developments such as these typically take a decade or two to flesh out, giving the school system a little more wiggle room than it might appear.

And finally, see the silver lining above. Expensive homes are purchased by educated people, and these educated people typically have educated kids. While school administrators charged with keeping tabs on the budget may be cringing, school administrators charged with keeping tabs on test scores may secretly be saying, "Bring 'em on."

One key, as County Commissioner Bill Wivell says, are proper development fees channeled directly into the schools' building funds. An adequate-facilities fee can indeed add $7,000 to a cost of one of these homes. But on a half-million-dollar house, that's a front door.

Of course growth is an issue, but perhaps the greater issue is paying for that growth as we go along, so we can afford to grow in an orderly and logical fashion.

Blum is correct to be rattling our cages before the first block of this new "city," as he calls it, is cemented in place. I'm sure the developers, and at least to some extent city and county government, do not believe that blocking this project is the answer. Now it's up to those groups to tell the school system what is.

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