Baltimore County Schools Packed to Breaking Point

New numbers show nearly a third of all Baltimore County schools are considered overcrowded by state standards.

“It’s a significant problem,” said Baltimore County Council Chairman Izzy Patoka.

Patoka stated he is planning to introduce legislation that would fix overcrowding in schools, which has been a problem for years.

“Well, it’s the nature of it, it is complex,” he said.

An analysis of Baltimore County Public Schools’ most recent school utilization data, which measures building capacity, was conducted. According to the report, BCPS has 164 schools. At the start of the school year, 50 schools exceeded 100% capacity. This means, according to the state, the building is beyond the maximum number of students required for a safe and adequate education. The most crowded school in Baltimore County is Dundalk High at 147% capacity. Dundalk High has a capacity of 1,446 students, but it has 2,134 students enrolled.

Sparrows Point High School isn’t far behind at 130% capacity. That school has a capacity of 871 students, while 1,136 are enrolled.

In all, high schools in the southeastern section of the county are, on average, at 121% capacity. Patoka stated this is not only a safety issue, “it’s an education issue.”

But it’s not just the southeast portion of Baltimore County. Towson High School is also at 130% capacity. Overlea High School is at 121% capacity. And Wellwood International, an elementary school, is at 140% capacity.

The question is how can this happen? Baltimore County code does not consider a school to be overcrowded until it’s at 115% capacity. At that point, no new residential developments can be approved for that zoned school. But there’s a loophole. If the school that’s above 115% capacity is adjacent to a school that is under 115% capacity, then new residential developments can be approved. That ordinance, Patoka says, has been around for decades and it needs to be changed.

“We need to kind of address it in an aggressive way, and in a way that’s urgent. And that’s what I intend on doing,” Patoka stated.

There are three ways, Patoka says, to address overcrowded schools. The county can build new schools, which is expensive. It can redistrict schools, which can be contentious among parents and families. Or the county can change its school capacity ordinance to limit new residential developments in certain areas to alleviate the number of new homes, and therefore potential students zoned to already overcrowded schools.

“Any way you look at that, putting 115 students into 100 seats, that’s bad math,” said Patoka. “It’s no way to educate, and it’s no way for us to deliver our public services.”

In the coming weeks, Patoka plans to introduce legislation to incrementally lower the school capacity ordinance, and the adjacency loophole, from 115% to 100%. This step, Patoka says, would limit where new residential development approvals can be issued to only include areas where the zoned schools, or the adjacent ones, are under 100% capacity.

But will limiting residential development be enough? In 2020, a county task force that looked into BCPS overcrowding recommended the adjacency exemption be eliminated, not just modified.

“My perspective is that our economy is driven by having a great education system, and we need to take every step possible to have a great education system for all, all students, all families in Baltimore County,” Patoka stated.

There are seven members of the Baltimore County Council. Patoka needs four votes to pass the legislation, but he believes it’s an issue that warrants unanimous support.

Contributions to this article are from Fox45 Project Baltimore.