Leaders of Frederick County’s development community are concerned that a change in capacity for Frederick County Public Schools elementary students will slow development in the county.
The 2019 annual update to FCPS’ Educational Facilities Master Plan drops the system’s state-rated capacity — the number of students that an individual school can hold — for the county system’s 40 elementary and primary schools from 20,396 total seats in the 2018-19 school year to 18,869 for the 2019-20 school year, a decrease of 1,527 seats.
While the elementary capacity dropped significantly, the capacity for middle schools in the county increased by 769 seats. High school capacity dropped slightly, by 91 seats.
The changes in the elementary levels will challenge the ability of developers to get project approvals under the county’s adequate public facilities ordinance, said Eric Soter, a consultant at Rodgers Consulting and a former community development official for the county. The ordinance certifies that projects that increase population won’t overburden public resources such as police and fire services, roads and schools.
The county has a ratio for how many students each type of housing should be expected to generate, be it single-family, town house, or multi-family.
When you reduce capacity and take away seats, there will be projects that fail to meet the APFO requirements, Soter said.
The changes in APFO approval at the elementary level will be something to watch, said Denise Jacoby, the executive officer of the Frederick County Building Industry Association.
The reduction at the elementary level is the equivalent of more than two elementary schools, she said.
Jacoby said the changes were a topic of conversation at a recent meeting of the association’s Land Use Council.
The development community is a bit confused, Jacoby said, because nothing changed suddenly that would seem to necessitate the reduction.
While FCPS has recalculated capacity for individual buildings when additions or new facilities are built, the last system-wide recalculation was done around 2005, said Beth Pasierb, supervisor of facilities planning for the school district.
Since then, some classrooms have been converted into reading or math intervention spaces for students who need extra help in those subjects, or for other programs, but the system hasn’t had the time or staff to recalculate all its buildings for up-to-date capacity numbers, she said.
When the state said about a year and a half ago that it wanted updated numbers, the school system hired two college interns who walked through each building to document how the space was used.
The capacity numbers aren’t intended to tell FCPS what its model for staffing classrooms should be, but the numbers are used by the state to decide which projects to improve capacity are justified and how much of a project’s cost should be funded.
County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said the county’s focus should be on building schools to provide education for students, not ensuring capacity for developers.
The county had a lot of development approved in 2013 and 2014, Gardner said.
Gardner said the schools that the county has opening in the coming years, plus a redistricting process that FCPS is considering, should accommodate everything that’s already been approved.
Pasierb said she thinks the new capacity numbers reflect the changes that have been made since the last comprehensive recalculation more than a decade ago.
“I would argue they’re a better indication,” she said.