Ecker, school officials clash over aid

April 22, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Any other day, school officials would have been celebrating. Instead yesterday, they were preparing for a fight.

The celebratory news was that the state Public Works Board had approved $6.6 million for Howard County to complete construction of a western high school and northeastern middle school, and pay for renovations to an Ellicott City elementary school.

But school officials are upset about County Executive Charles I. Ecker's plan to amend his proposed capital budget and cut the school board request by perhaps as much as 10 percent.

Mr. Ecker said yesterday that he thinks school construction is too expensive. The cuts would affect projects that have not yet been bid and will not affect renovations or small projects, he said.

With the state aid, Mr. Ecker plans to use other money in the capital budget to renovate and expand Bollman Bridge and Longfellow elementary schools and repair roofs at Hammond High School and Guilford and Phelps Luck elementary schools in the coming fiscal year. Mr. Ecker had earlier asked the school board to defer those projects a year, and the school board had agreed.

That agreement accounts for some of the anger school officials are feeling.

"We could have played hardball" and not agreed to delay projects a year, said school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "Some chastised us for not doing that. Instead, we made a lot of changes. He owes us a little. We're going to have to really fight him on this one."

Mr. Ecker said he is not singling out the school board and is planning to make similar cuts in construction projects in the noneducation portion of the amended capital budget he will send the council early next week. He said he may reduce money for road and bridge construction projects, too.

The cuts affect projects to be built in future fiscal years. Mr. Ecker estimates the school cut in fiscal 1994 would be $2 million to $3 million -- 5 percent to 10 percent of the amount the school board asked for March 23. Mr. Ecker said he is waiting to determine the exact amount of the cuts in his amended budget until after tonight's school board meeting.

"I'm waiting for their amended budget," Mr. Ecker said. "I would rather that they make reductions. I'm hopeful they will make some."

Mr. Ecker said he sent Dr. Hickey a letter several weeks ago saying he hoped that the school board would make cuts of 10 percent to 20 percent. Mr. Ecker said he believes that the county is paying more than necessary for schools that may become obsolete in 15 to 20 years.

"In analyzing [the county's school construction] projects, I saw that our per-pupil cost is 20 percent higher than the average of other counties," Mr. Ecker said yesterday. "It is difficult and risky to make across-the-board comparisons, but it is an indication that our costs are more than the surrounding areas."

Said Dr. Hickey, "There is no rationale whatsoever for this. We are at or below the state's square foot cost. That is proof that we are not building wildly extravagantly."

Dr. Hickey said he tried to dissuade Mr. Ecker on Monday from making the proposed cuts, as did Sydney L. Cousins, associate superintendent for finance and operations.

School board Chairman Dana F. Hanna said he came out of Monday's meeting assuming that Mr. Ecker was talking about cuts in the fiscal 1995 budget, not the coming one.

Mr. Hanna is put off by Mr. Ecker's suggestion regardless.

"Parents at St. John's Lane Elementary School were complaining recently that they didn't have as much square footage per child as some other schools and were suffering as a result," he said. "If Chuck is saying that he wants us to overrule the community's desires and build cheap anyway, I'm not of a mind to do that."

County costs are higher than in some other jurisdictions because the county builds bigger schools, Dr. Hickey said.

If Mr. Ecker follows through as expected, the school system will face a cut in programs, Dr. Hickey said. "The figures just don't prove what Chuck says they prove. I and the board will argue that very strongly with the County Council."

The board cannot provide all the programs it wants to now because of a lack of space, Mr. Cousins said. "There is no pre-kindergarten, and we do not have the full-day kindergarten programs we would like to have."

The school system will use 44 relocatable classrooms next year -- "the equivalent of two elementary schools" -- to help forestall the need for new construction in the future, Mr. Cousins said.

The council can restore money the executive cuts from the education portion of the budget. Whether it will do so remains to be seen.

Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said she will "very likely be supporting" the cuts Mr. Ecker is proposing.

"That may appear anti-education, but nothing could be further from the truth," Ms. Pendergrass said.

Like Mr. Ecker, Ms. Pendergrass believes that too much money is spent on school construction.

And Mr. Ecker's plan to reduce the amount spent in the capital budget on construction of government buildings other than schools "is music to my ears," she said.

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