Howard County's good news from the state yesterday was so surprising that not even school officials knew about it.
The news is this: Howard County is slated to receive an extra $9.3 million in public school construction funds -- $8.7 million for the new eastern high school and $594,000 for Longfellow Elementary School.
The $9.3 million is in addition to the $4.7 million already promised the county for a new western high school. County officials were expecting additional aid of about $3.3 million. The $14 million total is the most the county has received in state school construction money in years.
"I love that," said Susan J. Cook, vice chairman of the school board, upon hearing the news. "This is wonderful! As the kids today would say, 'Awesome!'"
Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for school construction, was a bit more reserved. "We received no notification of this," he said. "I haven't received any formal notification from our appeal to the Board of Public Works."
The state board will meet April 20 and is expected to ratify what the General Assembly agreed to Monday night in approving a $380 million capital budget that included $82 million for school construction.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Ms. Cook praised the county's General Assembly delegation for their efforts in getting the extra school money. "I would like to thank our delegation. They have been very helpful and instrumental," Mr. Ecker said. "Without their work and assistance, I don't think this would have been possible."
Ms. Cook and Mr. Ecker differ, however, about how the extra money should be spent. Mr. Ecker wants to use it to replace county bonds that he included in his capital budget for school construction. Eight out of every $10 of local bond financing in the proposed budget was allocated for school construction.
"This will allow us to amend our capital budget and utilize [additional funds] for road projects," he said.
Mr. Ecker had said in his March 29 capital budget message to the council that state aid for schools might free up local bond money for roads.
With the state now picking up some of that tab, Mr. Ecker said he would "put money back in the budget [for roads] but will not do anything until after the completion of the transportation master plan." Once the plan is completed and adopted, the money will be spent "on those projects the council deems appropriate," Mr. Ecker said.
Diverting extra money to roads will not be easy. Even before receiving yesterday's good news, school officials warned Mr. Ecker that they planned to fight him over the $2.5 million he cut from their capital request. Now, they come armed with extra ammunition. "This unexpected money is necessary money that we need to build or complete or renovate projects," Ms. Cook said.
Mr. Ecker has cut all of the county's nonschool construction projects by 10 percent and expects the school system to do likewise. Schools officials say they have cut as much as they can and are appealing to the County Council for help. The council can restore amounts the executive cut from their request.
Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a District 13A Democrat, issued a news release saying that she was "delighted to have obtained the lion's share of funding" for her district. The release said that since Ms. Thomas was "so successful in obtaining new construction funds," she would ask Mr. Ecker and the council to share the wealth with older schools.
Local officials praised Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, a District 13 Democrat, for his help, and Mr. Yeager gave credit to Sen. Charles H. Smelser, a District 4 Democrat. Mr. Smelser, who represents a portion of Howard County, was part of a six-member conference committee that put together the state's capital budget Friday. Both serve on the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, and Mr. Smelser is chairman of the capital budget subcommittee.
"Charlie's the main force," Mr. Yeager said. "We have very good rapport. I look out for Howard and he looks out for Carroll and Frederick [counties]."