The Road Ahead for County Schools HOWARD COUNTY

October 16, 1992

In the first round of inevitable cutbacks, the Howard County Board of Education acted with reasonable caution in crafting a proposed budget for school construction into the 21st century. We hope officials can maintain their thoughtful, frugal-minded approach as the system's $250 million capital request proceeds in its circuitous route to final approval next June.

No one at this point, however, should be misled that the worst is State and local officials have yet to contend with the hardest decisions confronting them in the coming months. At stake in Howard and other jurisdictions where school enrollments continue to grow is nothing less than the kind of environment in which students will be taught in the years to come.

School officials want to build 14 new schools through 2003. Whether the economy and public opinion will accommodate them on this is another matter.

So far, Board of Education members have approached the situation with a modest re-alignment of Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed budget. Working first on the 1994 request, board members reduced the proposal to $45.7 million, delaying about $17.1 million in requests for later years. That strategy puts off construction of three schools in the western and southeastern parts of the county, forcing school officials to turn temporarily to portable classrooms to handle expected overcrowding in schools in those areas.

State funding for school construction, which has already dipped to only 25 percent of the overall costs, could take another nose dive this year. County government, which increasingly has borne the brunt of construction costs, is showing little willingness to take on large-scale projects.

School officials are also weighing contingencies that do not involve building more schools. Among the options: Larger class sizes, students coming to school in shifts, building "cheaper" schools or having students in school year-round.

Unless county residents show a willingness to pay higher taxes, one or more of these options -- some much less tasteful than others -- are possibilities in future years. These are things for residents to ponder as they decide what it is they want from their schools and how badly.

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