Prince George's County planners have consistently underestimated the impact of new development on school enrollments, allowing builders to pay less than they should to help schools accommodate new students, a state lawmaker from the county said yesterday.
County, state and school leaders met in Annapolis yesterday to discuss the issue, which Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) said was particularly important to resolve as the county embarks on a six-year program to build 13 to 26 schools and renovate many existing schools.
The county requires home builders to pay a sliding fee if planners anticipate that the construction will cause a school to exceed 105 percent of its capacity. If a project is expected to push capacity to 130 percent, developers must stop building until crowding is eased. The county also imposes a $2,500 building surcharge, though developers don't necessarily pay both fees, depending on how much they amount to.
Hubbard said he wants to simplify the complex method of assessing builder fees by eliminating the sliding fees and requiring developers to pay a flat fee of at least $5,000 for every new home or apartment built in the county.
Projecting enrollments, long a headache for county and school system planners, will become increasingly difficult as the county continues to phase out 26 years of court-ordered busing and return students to neighborhood schools.
Hubbard said he would like to eliminate the current system of projecting the impact of new construction on school enrollments, even if it means growth could proceed at a faster rate.
"I'm more concerned about raising money [for schools] than controlling growth. The market controls growth," Hubbard said. "We've rethought this process and don't think it works. We want to deal with one flat fee."
County leaders defended the current method as a way to limit growth in an objective manner, not to raise money.
County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom) said he might support some aspects of a flat school-impact fee, but he added that the council never intended a "pay and go" policy that would allow growth to continue as long as developers paid the fee.
Conflicts often have arisen when county and school system planners, who use different methods to project enrollment, come to different conclusions about which schools will experience significant growth.
In one case, school officials projected that a new development would push Patuxent Elementary in Upper Marlboro to reach 142 percent of capacity in five years. That should have stalled the development, school officials say, but county leaders approved it because county planners estimated different school impacts.
Also yesterday, the Prince George's County Council passed a measure establishing public hearings for all future enrollment projection deliberations by county planners.
The current arrangement "is not fair to the kids in the county," said Linda Owens, a parent activist who helped lead the effort.
Some builders said they would support a flat fee because they would know up front how much they have to pay the county.
The current arrangement, said developer William Shipp, "no one will ever be happy with and it causes uncertainty in the development community."
County Planning Director Fern V. Piret said her planners accurately project overall school system enrollment. But she said her office's effectiveness in anticipating individual school enrollments has been hampered by a lack of access to school system planners' boundary and enrollment data.
Piret said she would hold two public hearings in December to explain the new methodology and solicit input from county residents.
In the meantime, county and school planners said they are working together to improve their ability to project enrollment more accurately by using improved technology and a method acceptable to both parties.
CAPTION: Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) wants developers to pay a flat fee to offset school crowding.