The Baltimore County Council on Monday passed a bill that seeks to ease overcrowding in some schools by further limiting new housing development in those areas, mustering enough votes to override a veto from County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

The bill would gradually lower the maximum enrollment allowed at a school from 115% to 105% of capacity. It would require that developers seeking to build in overcrowded districts obtain permission from an established “public school capacity committee.” If denied a permit from the committee, a developer would be placed on a waiting list for up to four years.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, provided the fifth vote to overturn the veto. Crandell was absent when the council voted 4-2 to pass the bill, which is essentially an adequate public facilities ordinance applied to schools, in early June. Within two weeks, Olszewski had vetoed the legislation, saying that it would reduce options to build more affordable housing in an increasingly expensive county.

The county executive had pledged to work with the council and the school board to come up with an alternative that exempted affordable housing from the development limits and gave the school system more flexibility.

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But council members who had voted in favor of the bill last month said Olszewski’s staff never reached out to them to explain their vision, and the school system added dozens of amendments at the last minute, none of which passed. Crandell said that, after some thought, he decided to join his colleagues to support a measure that would tie the ability to build new housing to the number of spots that a school has for the students.

Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican representing the northern part of the county, said he had spoken with Olszewski and that the council had changed the bill in a way that would allay “a couple of his major concerns.” The new version makes the committee advisory instead of a mandatory arbiter. It also essentially exempts affordable housing from the bill, allowing it to go forward if obligations under the 2016 voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a discrimination lawsuit are met.

Johnny Olszewski, Baltimore County Executive, speaks at a press conference announcing a package of foundational legislative reforms to expand access to new housing opportunities as well as address community concerns in Baltimore County.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. speaks at a press conference announcing a package of legislative reforms to expand access to new housing opportunities. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Olszewski issued a statement early Monday evening criticizing the council’s action, calling the measure “deeply flawed legislation.”

“The introduction of a Band-Aid bill to address concerns that we — and countless others — have raised is a curious and convoluted approach to addressing the flaws associated with the original APFO legislation,” he said. “Nonetheless, we encourage the Council to use this ‘do-over’ as a renewed opportunity to engage with BCPS leadership and housing advocates to responsibly address school overcrowding while also meeting our moral and legal obligations to expand access to attainable housing. Moving forward, we remained focused on pursuing evidence-based, collaborative opportunities that support the residents of Baltimore County.”

Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat representing the west side, was not present. He had previously voted against the measure and stood with Olszewski at a press conference outlining his concern that the bill would stop development at a time when the county needs it most.

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Councilman Pat Young, a Catonsville Democrat, reiterated his agreement in principle with an ordinance to relieve overcrowding, but said that he objected to the way it was put into practice.

“The process of endorsing a product by overriding a veto on that product, and then having a piece of legislation that then changes the same product, does not follow a process I’m familiar with in terms of engaging with stakeholders and then making significant changes based on what their feedback is,” Young said.

Council Chair Izzy Patoka said before the vote that he listened closely to the dozens of people who had testified against the measure. Many were homebuilders, developers, attorneys for developers, and affordable housing advocates. But out in the community, he said, he found overwhelming support from residents who have grappled with overcrowding at their public schools. They supported the ordinance.

“I go to community meetings every night, and [at] every single meeting I go to, without exception, every single person I spoke to was in support,” he said. “The only people that are in opposition are special interest groups like the homebuilders.”

The school board also opposed the measure, though one board member testified for it and another against. Patoka said amendments added Monday night would make the legislation more palatable to the school board, but did not offer specifics at the hearing.

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The school overcrowding bill was crafted with suggestions from a 2020 task force that studied how to relieve pressure in Baltimore County schools that are exceeding capacity. The county already has an adequate public facilities ordinance for sewer and water and other services, but it did not necessarily apply to schools.

From the beginning, school board members, administrators, principals and teachers were part of the task force. But, Olszewski said, the bill changed drastically from what the council had recommended. Continued amendments made it difficult to assess until after it passed, Olszewski said.

Last month, Olszewski won the Democratic nomination for the 2nd District seat of U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is not seeking reelection. Olszewski is favored to win and would take office in January if he does.

Hailed by some council members as a commonsense solution that would address school overcrowding without stymying housing construction, the measure also received some support from the teachers union and parent-teacher organizations. Educators have long agreed that overcrowded schools are not ideal learning environments. They say that students pay less attention to lessons and are less well-behaved, and that the facilities deteriorate more quickly.

Kach and Republican and David Marks, who represents the Perry Hall and Middle River areas, joined Democrats Patoka and Mike Ertel of Towson to sponsor the bill.

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But housing advocates quickly pushed back over the details. The county has not yet met an obligation with the federal government to add 1,000 more units of affordable housing by 2027. A new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the Community Development Network of Maryland found that in Maryland, the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom rental home was $1,909, while in Baltimore County it was $1,943.

To afford such a rental home, full-time workers in the county would need to earn at least $37.37 per hour — or more than double the minimum wage. The median home price in Baltimore County has increased to $370,000.

Proponents of Gov. Wes Moore’s housing agenda contended that the school overcrowding bill sought to curb development instead of addressing more systemic problems that might be better handled with redistricting or new school construction.

Maryland Secretary of Housing and Community Development Jake Day urged the council in late May to proceed with caution on the bill. In a somewhat unusual move for a cabinet official, he wrote to the legislative body arguing that the bill could adversely impact the state’s challenges with housing affordability and supply. He added that the Baltimore region is facing a deficit of at least 33,000 units, forcing many families into unsafe or unstable housing conditions, and hindering the school system’s ability to retain educators and staff due to high costs of living.

In the recent legislative session in Annapolis, state lawmakers considered allowing counties to disregard “adequate public facilities ordinances,” the umbrella term for local growth management, for as long as 15 years to encourage more housing creation. But the provision faced a heavy backlash and did not advance to the final version of the housing package.