Monday, July 16, 2012

Opposing APFO revisions

I am a product of public schools. From my time at Chesapeake Terrace Elementary to my undergraduate study at St. Mary’s College, I was enrolled in public educational institutions. So I was pleased, but not surprised, to see on this week’s Record-Observer front page a headline that read: “County Schools Still Among Top In State.”

I do not believe that bigger education budgets automatically mean better education. Several counties in Maryland spend far more per pupil than Queen Anne’s and yet do not get the results we achieve. One can also look to the expense of public colleges versus that of private institutions; the difference in costs is a wide one, but after real world experience with colleagues from both sides of the public/private divide, I can see no obvious differences in the quality of education one receives, and certainly not a big enough difference to justify the price gap.

While there is no quid pro quo between funding and quality public education, municipalities have to spend something on schools and education, the trick is finding the balance. If articles like the one referenced above are any indication, perhaps Queen Anne’s County has found that balance, as we educate our children better, and for less money, than just about any other jurisdiction in the state. In Queen Anne’s County, from the standpoint of a price/earnings ratio, education spending appears to be a good investment.

Yet cash-strapped localities full of politicians loathe to raise taxes are often longing to wring more savings from the school system. But there is certainly a hazard in attempting to be too cheap, and the risk inherent in attempting to find the place where the teeter may totter is to court disaster. To try and put an educational system back on track after it has suffered severe financial, morale and performance setbacks would likely cost far more, both from financial and educational perspectives, than any reductions in spending ever saved. 

Currently Queen Anne’s County has a robust provision, known as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) that requires every proposed new development above a certain size to assess its impact on schools, roads, and emergency services. The APFO covers several public sectors, but for the sake of this blog, let’s focus on the schools provision of the ordinance. 

If local schools are at one hundred percent capacity, then the APFO requires the developer in question to add the capacity necessary to accommodate the proposed growth. If the developer is unable or unwilling to mitigate the burden of his/her development on the county’s school system, rather than passing that burden along to the county, the development cannot progress.

The fact that the APFO exists at all serves as an official nod that residential growth would not otherwise cover the costs of educating the children it brings to the county.   

The APFO is the essence of good government. It serves as an insurance policy for those who already call the county home, seeking as it does to protect them from degradations in the quality of the government services they currently receive, as well as from costly increases in tax bills brought on by growth that does not pay for itself. 

Three of the five current county commissioners have suggested eviscerating the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, in order to pave the way for more growth. This short-sighted notion is the opposite of good government. Instead it is amateurish financial management, the same type of Wild West, ‘if it feels good do it’ mismanagement that has gotten Wall Street fat cats into so much trouble lately. Reducing the effectiveness of the APFO is a Ponzi scheme that promises big returns on behalf of county taxpayers, but in the end leaves them holding the bill. 

The changes that the three commissioners are seeking to make to the APFO would raise the capacity threshold on schools from 100% to 130%. That means that if Queen Anne’s County High School were over-crowded, at let’s say, 110% capacity, a development could be proposed that would add significantly to the already over-extended school system and it would be given the APFO green-light. The suggested changes to the APFO are recipe for school over-crowding and a reduction in the quality of education our kids can expect to receive.

Remember the delicate balance we seek to achieve with our education funding? Well, obliterating the APFO would throw the scales way off kilter. Because as it would add to the school’s rolls without increasing the ability of the schools to educate these new kids, changing the APFO is in fact no different than a further cut in school funding. Think of the impacts of reduced education dollars: larger classes, fewer teachers teaching more children, teachers teaching outside of their areas of expertise, more stress placed on physical facilities, more classes held in trailers. These are precisely the same impacts that an alteration in the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance would have on the school system.

In November the tax-paying citizens of Queen Anne’s County can take a stand in support of good government. New development has costs to the county, and the APFO as it’s currently written seeks in some small measure to account for those costs. Burying our collective heads in the sand, and pretending that new growth has no meaningful costs, and is always good for the county and her citizens is financial irresponsibility run amok. In November, support lower taxes and better schools, support the current APFO and oppose any attempts to weaken this protection for taxpayers and students.        

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