Conversations about school seat allocations in Charles public schools continued on Wednesday during a joint meeting, and both commissioners and school board members agreed the discussion should continue.
School board members were concerned a proposed new policy would allow more residential, commercial and/or institutional developments and affordable workforce housing in a specific school zone, even if that school is at capacity, would lead to overcrowding in the schools.
The Charles commissioners passed a minor update to the policy in July, then held a public hearing on the proposed change in legislation in August and spoke with school board members this week to find a way to meet in the middle. No decisions on the main changes to the policy were made this week, but the elected officials pitched talking about it more often and for commissioners to discuss the school system’s concerns with school staff.
The proposed policy update included applying a student yield factor to a project and sharing capacity for projects in development districts. It also included a sunset provision for projects on the school waiting list, which allow projects to move forward after six or seven years whether there is a school allocation or not.
The school system presented a list of concerns with the proposed legislation during an August school board meeting.
Concerns included the inclusion of priority funding areas within the priority development projects, giving 800 annual allocations to the priority development projects, changing the time allowed for a residential multi-family apartment to five years and allowing two years for priority development projects to fall behind schedule.
Michael Heim, the assistant superintendent of supporting services, proposed on Wednesday to drop the seat allocation from 800 a year to 400 a year. A meeting document from the school system states 400 seats a year would still fulfill the needs of the Waldorf Station project.
Superintendent Kim Hill said they are not antidevelopment. In fact, the school board encourages affordable housing, she said, adding she thinks there is a way both goals can be accomplished.
Board member David Hancock said it has been said 3,700 seats are available in the schools. It’s true but only if every school is at 110% capacity, he added. He said six of the seven high schools are under capacity and Milton Somers is over capacity by 288 students.
“I think it’s important to try to look at historical numbers,” board member Michael Lukas said.
Between 2010 to 2020, over 6,000 construction permits were given, or about 600 per year, he said. Lukas said the new policy could increase it to 1,000.
He suggested several board members and commissioners meet frequently to continue these conversations.
Commissioner Gilbert “BJ” Bowling (D) said as long as the meetings are open to the public, he is open to it.
Bowling said he does not agree with the state policy that systems cannot receive construction funding to build a new school until after they prove there is overcrowding. He suggested collaborating to change the state rule.
“Even though it’s a hard push, it’s something to show the community we’re willing to push forward,” he said.
“I have ben raising the warning flag since the beginning of this conversation,” Commissioner Amanda Stewart (D) said.
The school teacher said she was excited to have this conversation with school board members.
“Unless you’ve been in the classroom ... you really don’t understand the impact of amount of students in the classroom,” she said.
Stewart added she is not “into developers” but is open minded. She said she’s asking colleagues to have a conversation with school staff discussing all the concerns then returning to the school board to reevaluate.