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Can a good solution spring from a bad idea?

November 20, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

Former Washington County Commissioner Ron Bowers' proposal to discuss dealing with overcrowded schools by educating students in shifts wouldn't ordinarily draw much attention.

Put aside the predictable opposition from parents, most of whom have worked out arangements for work, day care and commuting that depend on the school schedule staying as it is.

There would still be the issues of teacher contracts, extra supervisors and transportation to deal with. If every school bus has to make double the number of runs each day, what would that do to costs?

But Bowers' idea gets some traction, at least as a conversation starter, because there is a new urgency to ease local school overcrowding.

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In October, the builder of the Sharpsburg Pike development known as Westfields filed a lawsuit for $7.5 million and change because the county had halted work on the 773-unit development because of school overcrowding.

The suit said the developer tried for months to work out a solution, a period during which fees increased and building material costs went up. The suit also claimed the county acted more favorably toward other developers.

Up until the suit was filed, Westfields' developer had been considered, at least publicly, a good partner with the county government.

When the first two sections of the development won approval from the planning commission, the development company was informed it would have to pay $823,760 because schools in the Fountain Rock Elementary district were at 85 percent capacity or more.

Depite the fact that the county was also negotiating for 10 to 12 acres for a new school, Jim MacGillivray, the developer's representative, said the fee would still be paid.

Whether this lawsuit has merit is something I'm not qualified to express an opinion on. I do know, however, that lawsuits and legal work are expensive.

Even though they have just hired a third attorney, the County Commissioners may see that finding a way to quickly ease school overcrowding makes more sense than spending tax dollars on a court case that they might not win.

As they learned with their annexation lawsuit against the City of Hagerstown, verdicts are something you have to live with, unless you want to spend even more money on an appeal.

Which brings us back to Bowers' proposal. It's not as if he's suggesting something that's never been tried.

California Educator, the magazine of the California Teachers Association, reported in February 2000 that the 23 schools in the Anaheim City School District were so overcrowded that they were forced to use a 12-month multi-track scheduling system.

Predictably, teachers there were not happy, blaming low test scores on the chaos that went along with the system.

But, as we have said many times, if you say no to one idea, you have to say yes to something else. This week I spoke to School Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan about other possibilities to ease school overcrowding.

(Yes, I am aware of a recent report that said county public school enrollment wouldn't be as high as predicted. No one, however, is predicting that it won't soon grow quickly.)

Morgan said that sending students to school in shifts would be a step backward for the school system, because it would probably result in cuts in extracurriculuar activities and some program offerings.

This makes sense. If you're offering AP Calculus, for example, it follows that not everyone will take it. If the potential students are on different shifts, the system would have to take on the extra expense of having two instructors or not offer it at all.

There are a lot of other ideas to offer, Morgan said, including redistricting and raising class sizes. Neither is something that parents would welcome, she said, but until construction catches up with the student population, both might be necessary.

Another possibility, Morgan said, would be converting "non-traditional" space into classrooms or schools. Makes sense. The old Ames building on Dual Highwasy might become Eastern High School until the new one is built.

But Morgan said the best idea might be creating incentives for parents to send their children to schools where there is room. She noted that at Fountaindale Elementary School, parents were drawn by the addition of an instrumental music program.

"There can be a natural balancing of the student population," she said.

To speed up school construction, Morgan said the system may go to the construction-manager model, which has cut six months or more off the time required to get schools built in other areas.

Many of these are policy decisions the School Board will make, but Morgan said that she hopes as citizens lobby for their favorite solution, they keep one thing in mind.

"This decision should be made based on what's good for the kids. That said, saving money is important, too, and I think we've done a good job of that," she said.

Bowers' proposal, which he emphasized he was doing to start a discussion and not in hope of imposing a solution, reminded me of something that happened years ago.

A group of local volunteer firefighters asked me to write a script for a recruiting video. They didn't like the one I wrote, but once they realized what they didn't want, they did one on their own.

Bowers has shown us what we don't want. Now it's time to start talking about how to solve this problem.

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