Leasing school buildings weighed to save money

April 25, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Faced with requests to lower spending, Howard County school officials are looking at new ways to finance education. The latest: private financing of school buildings, where the county would lease facilities instead of buying land and building.

The idea comes at a time when the education budget is being attacked again.

On the operating side, school officials have to cut $5.3 million from their $208 million budget. This could mean that, among other things, high schools will open 15 minutes earlier next school year, saving $650,000. School officials also have suggested cutting $585,000 by hiring less experienced teachers and $75,000 by eliminating golf and gymnastics from interscholastic athletics.

On the construction side, school officials have had to slash their $60 million-plus capital budget to $38 million, forcing them to delay construction of one middle school and spread out financing of other projects.

"We're not just crying wolf," said Patti Caplan, schools spokeswoman. "The writing is on the wall here that there is no way the county can fund schools at the level they are and meet the needs of the other capital costs for the county. . . . We're trying to be realistic about this."

Chairman Dana Hanna had sharp words for County Executive Charles I. Ecker at last week's school board meeting. Mr. Ecker has proposed cutting the school board's already reduced capital spending plan by 10 percent.

"The arbitrary 10 percent [projected] cut is the most ludicrous action I've seen by a politician in this county in a long, long time," Mr. Hanna said.

Mr. Ecker responded in an interview: "We have to start cutting back. The money is not there. In the long run, we ought to watch what we spend."

Mr. Hanna also had sharp words for County Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, who lobbied to keep in the budget more than $1 million in renovation money for Bollman Bridge Elementary, which is in her district. She has said that she would "very likely be supporting" Mr. Ecker's request.

"Once we take care of the home front, we don't take care of anyone else," Mr. Hanna said acidly.

"I don't mind making sacrifices," said board Vice Chairwoman Susan Cook. "However, there comes a point when you're not sacrificing, you're devastating. We've gone beyond that point."

With an additional 1,500 students expected to attend county schools in the next 10 years, school officials have been discussing alternatives to school construction, including year-round schooling, double-shifting and increasing class sizes.

A move toward private financing of school buildings would require officials to design buildings with reuse in mind. It would also require them to place schools in commercial areas, which they say they would prefer not to do.

But school officials see the advantages as having developers pay for the buildings, earn rent and get use of them after student enrollment dwindles.

Mr. Ecker favors looking into private financing but says the school system has the final say.

"I think we ought to explore it," he said. "We have to see if it is going to save us any money or not."

Whether the school system builds schools under a bond or leases space, the money would still affect the county's bond limit, he said.

Frederick Glassberg, a consultant from Crystal Hill Investments Inc.,who presented findings of a school board-commissioned study at Thursday's meeting, said school officials should proceed with private financing "only if the present value cost of leasing is substantially less than funding the bond issue."

Mr. Glassberg praised the construction committee members, saying they have "developed a system by which they get the most control and the best prices."

Mr. Ecker has criticized school construction as being too expensive, but Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin said school officials actually spend less per square foot now than they did a few years ago. The downturn in the economy has forced construction companies to charge lower rates -- giving a decline from $96 per square foot for Bollman Bridge Elementary in 1986 to $78 per square foot for Burleigh Manor Middle last year, he said.

"The trend is for [schools] to be built even less expensively rather than cheaply," he said. "We have to live in these buildings for the next 40 years and maintain them."

Board members seemed hesitant about moving forward with private financing. Board member Deborah Kendig questioned whether lease money would come out of the schools' operating or construction budget.

"I see a shell game -- a potential for it," she said, adding that she wasafraid the school system might have to reach into the budget that pays for salaries and supplies to pay for leases.

The board last week approved a revised $37 million capital budget for fiscal 1994, a plan that would defer payments on some school construction projects until fiscal 1995.

The capital budget was revised after the state Board of Public Works last week gave Howard County an additional $6.6 million in school funding.

The revision means:

* Construction costs for Wilde Lake High School renovations as well as a second eastern high school and a southeastern middle school will be split over two years. The split is not expected to delay completion dates.

* Construction and opening of a western elementary school will be delayed by a year until August 1997. Pointer's Run Elementary School will be overcrowded by 87 students in 1996 and 169 students in 1997, and Clarksville Elementary School will be over by 22 students in 1996 and 77 students in 1997. Schools will be able to absorb the extra students, according to Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin.

* An environmental science center for the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area will not be built until 2002, four years after it was scheduled to open.

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