Year-round school costs questioned Savings projected in report were based on faulty data

Building expenses ignored

Millions more would be spent over 20 years, analysis shows

November 07, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system's recent year-round education report -- which claimed the calendar switch could save the county millions of dollars by not building four new schools -- neglected to take into account one thing:

Construction is scheduled to begin on two of those schools by spring.

And school officials say there are no plans to delay construction of these two schools -- thus wiping out all of the projected savings from the year-round schedule.

The year-round school report was touted two weeks ago as potentially saving the Howard schools $15.7 million over 20 years -- mainly from the county not having to build four elementaries scheduled to open from 1997 to 1999.

But going forward with the two new schools means that a year-round school schedule would be at least $3 million -- and as much as $33 million -- more expensive than the traditional school calendar over the next 20 years, a Sun analysis of school system data shows.

The loss of the projected savings makes it less likely that the Howard schools would switch to a year-round calendar as members of the county school board have said that the only reason they're considering the idea is because it might cost less.

"I have always believed that [year-round education] would be more expensive, and I think we are going to see more and more costs come out," said school board member Stephen Bounds, who is opposed to year-round education.

"The only reason we were every considering it was the economics, and I think this shows from an economic standpoint that the trade-off isn't worth it," he said.

The school system's top manager in charge of planning acknowledged Saturday that the system intends to break ground for the two new elementaries this spring -- and that those plans had had not been taken into account when studying the costs of a year-round school schedule.

"The report assumes that four new elementary schools would not be needed, but by spring [of 1996] two of those elementary schools will be under construction," Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin told those attending an education funding forum over the weekend.

The yearlong study -- which involved more than 90 school officials, teachers, principals, parents, community leaders and residents -- was done under Dr. Kalin's direction.

It is not clear how the apparent miscalculation was made in the report. Dr. Kalin did not return phone messages yesterday.

At Saturday's forum, Dr. Kalin did not give a new cost estimate for year-round schools based on building the two schools, but acknowledged that "the cost analysis will change dramatically."

A Sun analysis of data in the year-round report shows that the cost of constructing the two new schools -- $19 million -- eliminates the entire $15.7 million in savings from the year-round schedule and adds new costs totaling at least $3.3 million over 20 years.

Other costs attributable to running the two new schools -- for utilities and for nonteaching staff -- could add another $30 million to the tally for year-round schools over 20 years.

Moreover, the report acknowledges that additional system-wide operating costs still need to be factored into the decision on a year-round schedule, including how much maintenance and custodial expenses might increase under a year-round calendar.

The report, presented to the board Oct. 26, said that a year-round calendar would be a feasible -- and cheaper -- alternative to new school construction.

The year-round schedule, as designed by Howard school officials, would have students continue to attend school for 180 days per year but would stretch the traditional 10-month calendar over 12 months for elementary and middle schools.

The calendar would be divided into three 12-week instructional sessions and three vacations of three weeks each, with abbreviated summer and winter vacations.

The board still intends to go forward with its plans for a public hearing on year-round education on April 2, and it will make a decision April 25, said school board chairwoman Susan Cook.

"Even with the change in costs, I still think we need to give the public an opportunity to comment on the report," Ms. Cook said. "If, for some reason all capital dollars stopped and our projects had to screech to a halt, we need to have this study on hand and ready to go, just in case."

Ms. Cook -- who has said all along that she would support year-round education only as "a last resort" if the county government refused to pay for any new schools -- said she doubted the original report's cost estimates. She said the new figures make it even less likely that she would vote for a change.

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