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Staff writer

Speakers at a public forum last week asked the Charles County commissioners to halt agreements with developers that allow the construction of homes in districts with overcrowded schools. Two commissioners seem poised to comply.

The board was considering three developer’s rights and responsibilities agreements, which would allow builders to pay Charles County government $13,600 per house to build in public school districts lacking capacity for additional students. The largest project was submitted by Elm Street Development, which is seeking to build 152 houses in Bryans Road, while two others want to build a total of seven houses in Charlotte Hall and Hughesville. The deals would put more than $2.1 million, plus interest, in county coffers by the end of 2017.

The commissioners did not make a decision, opting to keep the record open for written comments for 10 business days.

Taking cash in lieu of having school seats available doesn’t help students sent to overcrowded schools, commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said, recalling the anger of parents during last year’s Charles County Public Schools redistricting hearings.

“I’m a parent. We promised them we would get this taken care of. … I don’t understand how and why, and this is just maybe my inability to comprehend this, [but] I could not for the life of me defend this to the parents who have just had their children moved from schools. We just went through this. How can this be and how can we do this [again]?” she asked.

Representatives of developers asked Kelly and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), who also expressed trepidation, not to halt the projects already before them.

“Let’s not penalize those people that are trying to do business in the county, and also understand that the school board is trying to work through these issues. … To cut off our noses to spite our faces would not be a good decision in this particular case,” said Jessica Andritz, an associate attorney with Andrews, Bongar, Gormley & Clagett, speaking on behalf of Elm Street Development.

The project would add a projected 74 students to the district of Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head, including 32 to an elementary school that is already 88 students over capacity, according to county documents.

Bel Alton builder Andrew Havrilla urged the board not to tar small developments like his, five houses in Charlotte Hall, with the same brush as large subdivisions, especially because La Plata High School had capacity when the project began.

Havrilla went further, insisting that being educated in an overcrowded elementary school had been one of the best things that had ever happened to one of his sons.

The boy, who had been a “lackadaisical” student before, had thrived when attending fourth and fifth grades in a trailer at T.C. Martin Elementary School in Bryantown, he said.

“Must have been that mold [that] helped him out,” Kelly sarcastically replied.

But Havrilla was undeterred.

“It’s not about the buildings children attend school at. It’s about what we put inside to teach the children,” he continued. “I don’t see a problem with the school being over capacity and a trailer being utilized for the education of our children, and I can speak personally on that. And maybe sometime I’ll bring [my son] in here, and he can probably speak a lot better than I can. … I ask that you approve mine and any other projects that come before you, especially in this district. The money we’re providing will fuel the next school, whether it be a high school, middle or elementary.”

But other parents of public school students urged Kelly and Robinson on.

Rosemin Daya of Waldorf called the local schools “severely overcrowded.”

“The reality is this all comes down to money. We all manage a household budget and understand if money doesn’t come in, bills don’t get paid. With our schools, it is almost as if we are taking a payday loan [with DRRAs]. We are borrowing against our most valuable commodity: the future. Our children,” she said.

A mother of current and former students at William A. Diggs Elementary School in Waldorf said the school’s formerly “calm environment” has changed, although staff are coping with crowding as well as they can.

“I do have to say, none of this makes sense to me, just zero sense. I do not understand how the county can continue to allow developers to keep building and building and building. I’m sure it’s wonderful for them, but we must have sufficient schools up and running and available. We cannot continue to put the cart before the horse,” said Debra Padgett of Waldorf.

Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) noted that there had been trailers at Lackey High School when he attended in the 1970s, before the building boom. He later said he was still deliberating, though he respected DRRA opponents’ concerns.

“I certainly voted for a review of DRRAs, but I don’t like to make sweeping comments. I don’t like to totally anticipate what I’m going to do, how I’m going to vote on something,” Collins said.

Robinson said he sympathized with builders but that DRRAs had outlived their usefulness, at least for now.

“Timing is everything, and I kind of feel for the [three] applicants who came here tonight, but it was inevitable. We’ve hit the brick wall,” he said.

Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) did not return calls seeking comment.