Board delays decision on expanding schools Hearing set on issue, capital budget plans

September 29, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Bowing to community pressure, the Howard County school board voted last night to delay its decision on whether to expand the official capacities of some of the county's high schools to 1,600 students.

The board agreed to include the high-school capacity decision in its deliberations on the proposed $37.7 million capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The building proposal -- released at a news conference earlier this week -- was formally presented to the board last night.

rTC The postponement permits parents and students to testify before the board -- a chance that would have been denied if the board had voted on the capacity question last night.

"I truly believe that the capacity of our high schools is intertwined in our capital budget," said Susan Cook, the board's chairwoman. "Tying the decision for the capacity of high schools into the approval of the capital budget allows us time for public input."

The board will hear testimony on both the proposed capital budget and high schools' official capacities during a public hearing Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The board is scheduled to approve the capital budget Oct. 12.

The question of high school capacity came up two weeks ago when the board heard reports on the feasibility of expanding the capacities of Centennial, Glenelg and Howard high schools to 1,600 students.

An inadequate septic system meant Glenelg could not be

expanded, but the board agreed to take two weeks to decide whether to increase the capacities of Centennial and Howard. Those decisions were initially supposed to have been made last night.

In the meantime, the PTAs at both Centennial and Howard scrambled to hold meetings and rally community support in opposition to the proposal, arguing that the core facilities of the schools could not handle student populations of 1,600. Many parents and students sent letters and phoned board members to express their opposition.

But school officials completed their capital budget proposal for the next decade and came up with their own plan for which schools ought to be expanded. The proposal calls for Howard and Mount Hebron high schools to receive additions expanding their official capacities to 1,600 students, but recommends that Centennial's official capacity only be increased to 1,332.

The capacity recommendations are being made on the basis of the predicted growth in the number of students from the neighborhoods around each high school, school officials said. The area around Centennial is not projected to gain as many additional students as the communities surrounding Mount Hebron and Howard.

Although the board voted to delay making a decision on high schools' official capacities, the members nevertheless discussed the issue.

A majority clearly leaned toward keeping the maximum official high school capacity at 1,400, but all the members struggled with finding alternative solutions to the rapidly rising enrollment.

"I have a number of grave concerns of increasing capacity without the financial backing to provide what students need for success," said board member Linda Johnston.

School officials predict that countywide high school enrollment will increase about 400 students a year for the next decade -- adding enough students to fill a new high school every three years.

Even with redistricting, two new high schools scheduled to open next fall and a third new one in the Fulton area planned for 2002, several high schools will again become overcrowded unless the capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron are increased to 1,600, the board was told.

"In my own mind, the facts drive the decision to build Howard to 1,600," said Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent for planning and support services.

Also last night, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey proposed eliminating two planned elementary schools and three school additions and delaying several other projects in his 10-year school construction plan.

The proposals were made because of the county's fiscaconstraints and reduced estimates of future enrollment growth, Dr. Hickey said.

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