School funding proposal falters Little political support evident for transfer of highway money

November 25, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A proposal to divert millions of dollars now earmarked for Howard County road construction to school construction has foundered, failing to rally the support of even the school board or PTA.

The money would come from a tax created five years ago on new development in the county, with the money aimed at ensuring that road projects keep pace with Howard's burgeoning growth.

State Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a west Columbia Democrat, has proposed diverting at least half that money -- now totaling $22 million and growing by $7 million a year -- to school construction, another need created by fast development.

But a variety of groups, including homebuilders, schools advocates and east Columbia supporters of a key highway project on Route 175, are reluctant to tinker with the system that most feel is working well. County Executive Charles I. Ecker also opposes Bobo's plan.

They have different reasons, but together the opposition is enough to sink the plan.

"I'm very puzzled myself," said Bobo after opponents overwhelmed supporters of the plan at a hearing last week. "It was a very one-sided discussion."

Bobo argues that since school construction is another result of growth, this tax money should be aimed at that area as well as roads. New road construction often encourages more development -- multiplying the pressure on schools.

"Something has to give, and I'm afraid it's going to be the schools," she said.

To pass, a majority of Howard's three state senators and a majority of its eight state delegates must vote to support the proposal.

Howard's two Republican senators, Martin G. Madden of Clarksville and Christopher J. McCabe of Ellicott City, oppose the plan -- virtually assuring its rejection at the vote, scheduled Dec. 2.

But Bobo was most surprised by the lack of support from schools advocates.

The PTA has questioned the plan, and the school board voted to stay on the sidelines. Both were wary of upsetting the current mix of funding for school construction, which includes millions in state money.

State responsibility noted

"I would hate to see the state look at us and say, 'Well, Howard County has set up a fund to pay for schools, so why should we pay for them?' " said PTA lobbyist Julie Klein, who expressed reservations -- though not outright opposition -- to the plan at a hearing last week.

School board Chairwoman Sandra French had similar worries. "I appreciated the concern for school construction," she said, "but I still believe that the state is primarily responsible for school construction dollars."

A committee appointed by Ecker after he took office in 1990 proposed the development tax along with other measures to control and accommodate growth in Howard.

That committee, which included PTA members, developers and others, also proposed Howard's growth law, called the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, designed to see that the county builds enough roads and schools to handle development.

Those measures, passed in 1992, brought an uneasy truce in the war over the explosive growth issue in Howard. Few want to resume that debate by supporting Bobo's plan.

"I think it's sort of a shoot-from-the-hip election-year gimmick," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, an Ellicott City Republican. "It threatens the community consensus in favor of adequate funding for schools and roads."

Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse Co. senior vice president, also wants to keep the development tax money dedicated to road construction. "That's been working well," he said. "It's now time to get some of these roads built."

Columbia's Long Reach Village Board opposes Bobo's plan because it could threaten efforts to build an intersection at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway -- which has enjoyed the on-again, off-again support of Ecker.

Raymond Wacks, the county budget chief, says the $22 million in the fund could pay for $70 million in roads projects if the county chooses to borrow against future tax receipts. Officials predict the Route 175 intersection will cost $16 million.

"We've been at this a long time," said Henry F. Dagenais, chairman of the Long Reach Village Board. "We don't want to see anything that would jeopardize that."

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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