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How much is needed to build new schools?

November 30, 2004

The current dispute over how much money the Washington County school system will get for construction over the next six years is important for many reasons.

But the most important is that unless the right formula is found now, before a substantial amount of development occurs, existing taxpayers might have to pay more than their fair share.

Earlier this month, school system officials told the Washington County Commissioners they would need $146 million over the next six years, including $24.6 million in fiscal year 2006.

Two commissioners, William Wivell and John Munson, called the request unreasonable, saying that the county doesn't have enough money for that.

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Commissioner James Kercheval disagrees, saying that with an adjustment in the county's excise tax on new construction, an additional $10 million to $11 million could be collected every year.

Wivell says this approach won't work, because the excise tax is paid before a permit is issued, versus the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance fees, which are paid when the development is proposed.

Wivell also questioned the need for a new $36 million high school, saying it was possible that perhaps an existing high school could be expanded instead.

For any such decision, we hope school and county government officials look at the research on the ideal size for schools.

For example, a University of Michigan study released in 1996 concluded that the ideal size for a high school is between 600 and 900 students.

Surely other studies have been done on what size is best for elementary- and middle-school students.

But no matter what those studies show, we urge the commissioners to agree now with school officials on a reasonable program for new schools and renovation of existing ones.

The wrong formula will leave schools overcrowded and send existing taxpayers - who will not profit from new development - a large share of the bill.

How much money will be needed? That's the question the commissioners need to answer before they adjust the fee schedule.

While they're doing that, they should address two other related items. The first is affordable new housing for existing residents who cannot pay $200,000 for a dwelling.

Every time a new fee is proposed, we hear protests from those who say such fees make housing unaffordable. For many, it's already unaffordable. The commissioners and those who are sincere about affordable housing need to craft a solution to the problem.

The commissioners should also consider innovative solutions to the construction problem. In Frederick County, builder Marvin Ausherman has offered to fund an $8 million high-school addition in return for approval of a 763-dwelling development.

Not everyone on the other side of South Mountain is happy about that idea, but Ausherman is not asking taxpayers to build the addition, but wants to dig into his own pocket instead.

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