Each year, school officials craft a chart that designates the areas ripe for development under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance by labeling schools as open or closed. The ordinance ensures that roads, school buildings and other infrastructure can handle more residents.
Recently, the school board failed to pass the chart, voting in favor of it 4-3. The chart requires at least five votes for passage and allows for the student board member, who has limited voting powers, to cast a vote.
If a development is slated for an area where the school has been designated as closed, it cannot be approved unless a new school is built, additions are made to an existing school or students are reassigned through redistricting, school officials said.
Before the vote on the chart, board member Brian Meshkin voiced strong opposition to the process, saying that charting schools amounts to reacting to changes rather than planning for what lies ahead.
"I am very concerned that our current approach creates 'inadequate' public facilities," Meshkin, in his first term as board member, said in an interview Wednesday. "Ever since joining the school board, I have raised this issue and have voted against the APFO chart because blindly approving a chart that contributes to the problem makes the school board complicit in a broken system.
"Our current approach," Meshkin added, "results in a disservice to our community — students, parents, educators, administrators, taxpayers, developers, and others. We've all heard the cliche: If you've dug yourself into a hole, stop digging."
The chart covers elementary school districts and regions as well as middle school districts for a 10-year period.
Joel Gallihue, Howard schools manager for school planning, said figures used for the chart are derived from the enrollment projection presented in the school system's feasibility study. He said the facilities ordinance does not affect school construction projects or county projects, and only governs residential development.
Gallihue said if the board passes the chart Tuesday, the County Council would likely adopt it in June. If the board votes against it, the council will likely keep using the current chart.
At the last vote, Chairwoman Sandra French, Ellen Giles, Janet Siddiqui and student member Tomi Williams voted for the chart, while Meshkin, Allen Dyer and Cindy Vaillancourt voted against it. Vice Chairman Frank Aquino was not present.
French reiterated her support of it.
"I personally believe it will protect more schools," said French, who added that any decisions on whether the process needs to be revamped should be explored by the Howard community as a whole.
"As an individual school board member, I can contribute my opinion," French added, "but several agencies need to work together on this."
But Meshkin pointed out some of the most significant changes to schools' status, including that of Swansfield Elementary, which would go from being open for the next nine years to being closed all 10 years.
"With the challenges of finding new school sites in the eastern region and downtown Columbia, this APFO chart only makes the challenges worse," Meshkin said.
County Council member Calvin Ball said that a school board vote against approving the chart would be "unfortunate."
Ball added, "If the board is unwilling to approve their own chart and make their voice heard by sending us something, it may be time for the council to re-evaluate their role in this process."
The vote comes as a group of local developers announced plans to begin construction soon on a $100 million mixed-use complex next to The Mall in Columbia. Ellicott City-based Orchard Development is among the groups in the joint venture, called Metropolitan Downtown Columbia, that will feature a six-story, 380-unit development.
"It's our understanding that the Metropolitan will not be affected by any APFO changes," said Robert DeSantis, director of multifamily development at Orchard Development. "The rezoning that occurred for the Town Center area pretty much paved the way for the first project or two to be covered for all APFO issues, school as well as others. We don't see this as affecting the project."