Auditor Recommends Redistricting Instead Of New Schools

Painful Process Worth $100 Million In Savings, Novotny Says

May 29, 1991|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

County lawmakers must choose between building schools or redistricting students. The first option could cost $100 million; the second could cost legislators their political lives.

County Auditor Joseph Novotny asked the County Council to face this unpleasant ultimatum yesterday while making his recommendations for cuts in County Executive Robert R. Neall's capital budget for fiscal 1992. Novotny is suggesting about $14 million worth of cuts in the proposed $95.6 million capital spending plan; he proposes slashing millions more over the next five years.

In the school category, Novotny said the council can eliminate the need for five major school construction projects by redistricting the entire school system so existing

schools are filled -- a move that would affect about 15,000 students and almost certainly incur parents' wrath, Novotny said.

But redistricting would save $80 million to $100 million and ensure that the county could afford to renovateexisting schools, he said. "You're going to have parents out there who aren't going to be happy. But you definitely have to look at affordability. I think I can have some people unhappy to save $80 to $100 million."

If redistricting does not occur and the new schools are built, existing schools will fall apart. "We don't have the bucks to renovate schools. We've got to do something to find the dollars to make the renovations," the auditor said.

Novotny recommended eliminating the following:

* Renovations to either the old Brooklyn Park or Andover senior high schools. Converting both buildings to middle schools, as now planned, would cost $32 million.

* A Meade area middle school for 800 students. Construction money for the $15 million school is budgeted for fiscal 1994.

* A $17 million, 1,000-student addition to Broadneck Senior High School. Construction money is budgeted for fiscal 1995 and 1996.

* A new West County Senior High School, planned for some time after fiscal 1997.

* A second middle school in Crofton for $15.6 million. The school is not scheduled to be built until fiscal 1997.

School officials do not dispute Novotny's figures. But redistricting involves a lot more than finances, said Michael K. Raible, director of school planning and construction.

"Redistricting is an extremely painful process. Before anybody needs to move down that road there needs to be a lot of discussion between thecouncil and the Board of Education," Raible said.

Parents and community leaders have always fought attempts to pull children out of one school and send them to another. School board members are unlikely to take action on redistricting unless the council makes it clear it will support such an unpopular plan, said Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis. And it is questionable whether council members will wantto risk the political consequences.

"There are seats out there, and we can save a lot of money, but we have to make a commitment to abide by the board's decision. And that's where the difficulty lies," Lamb said.

At 64,000, school enrollment is declining, Novotny said.There would be room for all students if the district boundary lines were changed.

"We're talking about instead of being bused four miles in one direction going 4 1/2 miles in another direction," Novotny said.

Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, worries that systemwide redistricting will further delay plans for the North County schools. He wants the county to move forward with plans for the new North County High School, to be located in the old Lindale Junior High School. Originally estimated at $11 million, the renovations are now expected to cost $17 million.

Redistricting "is going to be a major, major effort, and it's not going to be done in a short period of time . . . Our students are being held hostage there because now you're coming up with this new idea," Bachman said.

Novotny said the redistricting can be accomplished in a year. He recommended that the money to renovate Lindale be put in the council's contingency fund until the school board develops a redistricting plan.

Eliminating one of the two proposed North County middle schools will save $20 million, Novotny said, noting that the Andover school appears to be a better financial bet than Brooklyn Park.

School officials still want both middle schools. A single facility would have to house 1,200 to 1,700 students, Raible said, pointing out that the average middle school serves 800 pupils.

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