How will Carroll fund new schools?


May 14, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

IF THERE was any doubt about who pulls the strings on school funding, it was decided this month when Carroll County learned that it may have to foot the entire bill of nearly $60 million for three new public schools the state says are not needed.

In this "Platinum Age" of school construction, a $300 million cornucopia of state school construction funding announced by Gov. Parris N. Glendening last week includes $6 million for the new Century High School building in South Carroll, plus pocket change for three renovation projects.

Carroll now has the dubious distinction of being the first county to go ahead with building a new high school without any guarantee of state reimbursement. Site work has already begun on the $36 million new Westminster-area high school.

Also eliminated from the governor's pronouncement of plenty was $9 million Cranberry Station Elementary School, which opened last year, and the $15 million Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead that is to open this fall.

Breaking new ground

That's a bold move where no other school system has gone before, an especially perilous step for a county that ever prides itself on cutting costs to the bone.

Remember, this is a county school system that always ranks low in per-pupil education spending and near the bottom in the teacher-pupil ratio, where hiring more teachers to reduce class size is always the first item to get the budget axe.

But a rising number of school-age kids in the county means that school buildings are more crowded. More space is needed, even after using 100 or so portable classrooms every year. More than 27,000 children are in the county public schools this year; that's 6,000 more students than in 1990.

Poor track record

Admittedly, the Carroll school board has not distinguished itself in managing the recent catch-up construction program. That's been very clearly demonstrated, even if board members have mostly turned their heads the other way.

And the county commissioners were similarly inclined to blithely ignore the urgent need for more school buildings until five years ago.

The county also didn't boost its credibility with the state when it switched priorities for a new high school, yanking the approved application for a new Westminster area facility to advance the proposal for a South Carroll high.

Now the state Interagency Committee on School Construction sees an underused Cranberry Station elementary, plus a new Hampstead middle school and Westminster high school that don't meet minimum five-year enrollment projections to qualify for funding.

The shortfall of students to populate these new schools may be in the eye of the beholder, however.

There's been little if any local questioning of the need for the Cranberry elementary school or the Shiloh middle -- until the construction management problems hit the news. Badly planned, too expensive. But not unneeded.

The major controversy has centered on the high school. South Carroll needed a new high school, needed it more than did the Westminster area. The problem is that the issue became a political tug of war between the two areas to see who would prevail.

Having lost the initial campaign, Westminster advocates battled for a second high school, and won. Pressure to build a mega-school in South Carroll, similar to existing Westminster High and thus erase the need for a second one in that area, was unsuccessful. And rightly so.

Multiple needs

For the need in Westminster is more than just providing enough space. The need is to add that space rationally, to maximize the educational experience. And that means downsizing Westminster High, a mega-school that should never have been built. More than 2,300 students are enrolled there now, in a building designed for 2,000.

Plans call for reducing the size of Westminster High to 1,600 students and use the extra space to house an enhanced vocational ed program. That's a sensible course. It would make both those Westminster schools more inviting and better able to meet the goals of secondary education.

Hopefully, the state school construction agency will recognize the wisdom of that decision and eventually reimburse the county for half the cost of the $35 million project. Yale Stenzler, the committee's executive director, says he will reexamine the county plans later this year, which could lead to a favorable verdict.

Carroll County has already pulled back from plans for another middle school, and is embarking on a redistricting plan that doesn't please everybody but at least tries to make a rational use of classroom space.

The county has caused some of the difficulties it has with the state construction funding agency. The governor's continuing pique with Carroll, over land use decisions and other political differences, is another reason.

But there is no question that the state calls the shots on school construction these days, providing about 60 percent of the actual building costs. That's the way the system works. Otherwise, traveling an independent course on building new schools will provide a costly and politically painful education.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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