The Howard County school board last night delayed plans to build a new middle school in Ellicott City, opting to make one big cut to its capital budget instead of a series of small ones.
The board also decided to seek more money for school construction from County Executive Charles I. Ecker for next fall after Gov. Parris N. Glendening gave the Howard schools less money than expected. But extra money from Ecker is far from certain, meaning that more cuts may have to be made later in the spring.
Also last night, the board selected the schools that will be designated "open enrollment" next fall, meaning that students who live outside those schools' districts can enroll in them.
The board's amended capital budget proposal seeks to spend $29.3 million next year on school construction, less than the $35.6 million originally sought but more than the $25.6 million proposed by Ecker.
The main cut comes from a decision to delay asking for money to build a new middle school near Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City.
The board had sought to open the Ellicott City middle school, and a middle school in Fulton near Fulton Elementary School, both in the fall of 1999. The Fulton project will remain on schedule because the board decided to shift money to it to replace money Ecker had proposed cutting.
If the new middle school in Fulton had been delayed, enrollment at Clarksville Middle School -- the school most likely to see relief from the new school -- would have grown to almost 350 students above its 545-student capacity in 1999.
"We had to make a choice, and the choice we had to make was for the extra seats," Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said in an interview after the board's decision.
The new Ellicott City middle school is to serve as a temporary school for two years for students from Ellicott Mills Middle School while their school is renovated. The delay means that renovations to Ellicott Mills also are likely be delayed at least one year and perhaps longer, Hickey said.
The board tentatively plans to seek all of the money for the new Ellicott City middle school in its fiscal year 1999 budget, holding open an outside chance that the school might be delayed only six months instead of a year, Sydney L. Cousin, associate school superintendent, said after the meeting. But it is unlikely that the board will receive all of that money in a single year, he said.
The decision marks another setback for parents and educators at Ellicott Mills Middle, who for years have been promised renovations or a replacement for a building that opened in 1939.
"The disappointment is that we get our expectations raised only to see them dashed again," said Jim Deitrick, PTA president at Ellicott Mills. "The building still works fine. Maintenance is being kept up so that instruction is not affected.
"But when you start expecting that renovations will be done at a certain time, it gets to be like whiplash," he said.
In making changes to its capital budget, the board restored funding to several projects that Ecker had proposed cutting, including: Adding more money to the additions planned at Deep Run, Waterloo and Worthington elementary schools and Mount Hebron High School. Ecker had proposed cutting some money from each project by reducing the amount of equipment purchased for the additions.
Increasing the amount to be spent on systemic renovations, from the $4.5 million proposed by Ecker to $5.6 million. It was not immediately clear which schools would be affected.
Increasing the amount to be spent on planning for a new addition at Glenelg High School, to the $505,000 originally sought by the board.
Continuing full funding of such projects as the second phase of renovations of the School of Technology and the purchase of equipment for new elementaries in North Laurel and Glenelg.
But it is by no means guaranteed that the board will end up receiving all of that money for school construction by the time it approves its final capital budget for fiscal year 1998 in late May.
Board members and Hickey said Ecker told them earlier this week to submit a supplemental capital budget request, saying that he will "see what I can do." The conversation came days after the governor gave the schools about $4 million less in school construction aid than Howard had expected.
"There's no guarantee we'll receive any extra money, but [Ecker] indicated it was possible," board member Stephen Bounds said.
But in an interview earlier this week, Ecker had a different recollection.
"I didn't mean to imply that," he said when asked whether he had told board members and the superintendent that he would set aside more county bonds for school construction.
Ecker's capital budget proposal for next year seeks to increase county debt by $18.7 million for school construction. The request approved by the board last night seeks $20.8 million in county bonds.