From 2008 to 2017, the percentage of students at Hillcrest Elementary in the city of Frederick jumped from 89 percent capacity to 135 percent.
But within that time, hardly any new homes were built in the area that filters students into the school.
That phenomenon, mixed with a laundry list of other factors that go into the detailed and intricate schools portion of the city’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, is the reason why developers say a simple solution to improving the legislation does not exist.
“Hillcrest Elementary, we talk about it all the time. To me that is the single largest demonstration that this county has to date to demonstrate why it doesn’t matter how we plan,” said Jeremy Holder, the vice president of Ausherman Development, during a workshop last Wednesday that focused on the school capacity portion of the APFO.
“There were virtually no new houses built in that Hillcrest district in the time that it ballooned from 90 to 130,” Holder continued. “That was a demographic bubble that was a series of circumstances that were totally out of control of the city of Frederick and Frederick County. And candidly, we need to take care of our students, but how do we plan for every one of those situations?”
That was one of several questions members of the Board of Aldermen will have to ponder from the workshop, which lasted roughly two hours and touched on everything from why schools are crowded in the first place to the intricate formulas for testing school capacities and Frederick County’s struggles to fund new school construction.
Schools and the city’s APFO
For any development slated to potentially add students to area schools, the city’s APFO requires a test to determine how the development would affect student capacity. The formula is complicated, based primarily on annual enrollment numbers and projected number of dwelling units, and is designed to prevent school crowding.
If a planned development fails its tests, the developer must hold off on construction plans, and wait until the next year’s enrollment numbers are released to test again. In the city, where elected officials have no control over where school funds are spent, the ordinance contains an element that allows developers to move forward with projects after failing three tests. The Board of Aldermen approved the three-test wait period in 2011 as part of a school construction fee ordinance that allows developers to pay mitigation, or school construction, fees if the projects fail the tests by less than 120 percentage.
On Wednesday, Joe Adkins, the city’s deputy director of planning, presented details of the schools portion of the ordinance that staff members determined the aldermen may want to look into tweaking as they consider changes.
The details included the three-year wait and school construction fee provisions, along with testing for senior housing projects, which is currently not required.
Adkins pointed out during the workshop that, while the provision does surround the failure of three annual tests, most developments do not produce any homes for eight to ten years.
“During that time no plans or site improvements can be made,” he said of the three-year wait. “The fourth year you start the development review process. In general, once that is underway, it takes about a year. Year five, six you can start with improvement plans, year seven and eight is grading and site improvements, and year nine, 10, building permits can be issued.”
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner does not believe the city’s mitigation fee option should remain, but if it does, she hopes officials will look at all of the projects in the cumulative pipeline to determine capacity instead of just the ones that have obtained permits.
That was one of several suggestions Gardner made during Wednesday’s workshop regarding the schools aspect of the city’s APFO.
She also suggested that the city’s three-year wait provision may not be achieving the intended results.
The provision is in place today to put county officials on notice that development is coming in an effort to give them time to build schools to accommodate it. Gardner pointed out that while county officials would like to build the schools as the city needs them, they would be coming in to an already packed queue of projects. The county currently has 13 schools in the pipeline for construction over the next decade.
“I probably need to build about 20 schools, there’s only 13 in the request, and then I’ll probably only build eight or nine of them in this 10 years because of a lack of funds, state and county,” she explained. “So when you put us on notice, it doesn’t really consider our ability to do it.”
The projects carry a price tag of roughly $700 million, which is set to come jointly from the county and the state, with the county providing what Gardner called the “lion’s share.” She explained that is because the state will not cost share certain aspects, such as land acquisition, design and extra square footage.
She added that the city’s APFO is not tied to school capacity the way other municipalities’ ordinances are.
“I think it would be more useful to tie your APFO to address school capacity instead of waiting and giving the county notice,” she said. “Because you’re giving us notice into a queue that is already hard for us to meet. We do want to have development to occur in and around city, we agree you need something different, but we are not solving school overcrowding as fast as we need to. And I do think school facilities do make a difference to the education of our students.”
Gardner told the aldermen she also would like to see them dedicate the money they have collected in mitigation fees to date, which is about $857,000, to the construction of Waverly Elementary. The school is the only one of the 13 planned that is in the city, she said.
“The whole idea in my mind is you’re letting a development build when schools are overcrowded. The idea is to use the money to make a school not overcrowded,” she said.
The fees collected, according to the city’s ordinance, do not necessarily have to be used for construction. Alderwoman Kelly Russell pointed out that the money is set to help with funding for improvements to schools that are already over capacity.
More than growth to blame
As Holder pointed out, the construction of homes is not necessarily tied to school crowding.
At a workshop on Feb. 6, a West Frederick Middle School teacher said it is not uncommon for her to have between 38 and 45 students in her classroom. She attributed the large class sizes to an influx in development, and while that may contribute in some ways, the real source may be much more complicated.
Frederick County Public Schools Facilities Planner Holly Nelson said on Wednesday that not all schools that have crowded classrooms are over capacity.
“In terms of seating 30 to 40 students in a classroom, that can also be like a staffing issue as well, it’s not just based on overcrowding in the building,” she said. “Sometimes for a specific course, if it’s really popular and you don’t have multiple staff to teach it, the principal might decide to allow more students.”
She added that school officials work “very hard” on enrollment projections and usually come very close to the right estimates.
At the close of Wednesday’s workshop, Russell asked her fellow aldermen what they are thinking in terms of changes they would like to see made to the APFO.
Overall they seemed to agree that they want the city to keep an ordinance that has different elements than the county’s in an effort to create incentives to develop in the city.
Alderman Roger Wilson said he is floating an idea to change the three-year provision to six years. Alderman Ben MacShane said he would like to learn what other jurisdictions of similar sizes and economies have done to address issues. He also said that it may be beneficial to put a restriction on upcoming developers that would only allow them to build multi-family homes, which do not typically produce the same number of school children as single-family houses.
Holder said via email Friday that he thinks that multi-family development should be a focus of the aldermen when they address the ordinance because those types of developments generate less children and create more affordable housing options.
He also said that while he believes that a creative solution is necessary, he is waiting for feedback from the aldermen to make any solid recommendations.
“The school construction fee and 3 year fail before passing are both policies that protect city sovereignty while helping schools, in our opinion, but they are certainly not the only solutions,” Holder said in the email.
He added that he would not like to see any policies that completely halt development.
“In summary, it’s going to be hard for me or anyone else in the industry to propose solutions until specific concerns are raised by the Mayor and Board of Alderman/Alderwomen,” he said. “I am looking forward to the dialog because I feel strongly that everyone will come to the table with open minds. On a personal level, the only policy I would fight adamantly is one that will bring things to a screeching halt. I’ve seen what happens when the pendulum swings too hard and too fast. It’s not healthy for our community and would be horrible for the city given it is one of the primary growth areas in the county. “
Chris Smariga, the principal of civil engineering firm Harris, Smariga & Associates, had a similar take during the workshop.
“There has been a system in place that feels like decades at this point, on how to look at capacities,” he said. “Instead of just throwing out blanket comments like, ‘schools are over capacity, we have to shut it down,’ we need to look at where we do have problems.”