Budget review hits a bump

Lorsung presses school enrollment, redistricting plans

Western school at issue

Howard County

May 11, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In an otherwise calm budget review, Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung told Howard County school officials yesterday not to expect her support for a proposed western county elementary school unless they first come up with firm enrollment projections and a long-promised countywide redistricting.

"I am moving closer and closer to asking for project E0977 [western elementary] to be removed from the budget," she said at one point in yesterday's council review of the school budget.

Lorsung changed the relaxed atmosphere with a hard push on an old sore point - notoriously inaccurate enrollment projections that have fed a continual sense of crisis in school planning, while heightening tensions between county residents and developers. Added to the mix is the belief of some people in older county areas, mainly in Columbia, that new, outlying neighborhoods are getting the new buildings while their areas suffer from lowered expectations symbolized by older schools.

She got quick assurances from school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and several school board members that those things will be done, and soon, but she was not satisfied.

"I am very skeptical about this kind of assurance," she said, noting she has heard such promises before. "I certainly feel more comfortable having pushed."

Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, was joined by fellow Columbia Democrat C. Vernon Gray, who said, "I agree completely with everything Mrs. Lorsung said."

O'Rourke said a consultant is to provide new, accurate enrollment projections by the end of June, and middle and elementary school redistricting should begin next year, after high school boundary lines are redrawn in December.

"I will assure you we will be working to resolve the grand redistricting issue," O'Rourke said.

Lorsung's was the lone jarring note in the council's budget work sessions so far, which have been so perfunctory that council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone joked during yesterday's session that the review should be called "speed budgeting." Most county agencies were reviewed with little or no questioning, and with most department budgets limited to built-in increases, none of the members seem to be pressing to find items to cut.

School officials are to return Tuesday for a final session with the council. The western elementary school, expected to help relieve crowding at Pointers Run and other congested western county elementary schools, is due to open in August 2006, but council members say they are tired of spending millions on new schools when seats may be available in older ones, and when county enrollment projections are often unreliable.

"I'm very concerned about having a new elementary school before we have resolved the student projection issue and completely redistrict the schools in the county. The process [redistricting] needs to start for middle and elementary schools," Lorsung said.

The school system has a committee working on redrawing school boundary lines for high schools by December, to prepare for the August 2002 opening of Reservoir High School in Fulton. Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin said the committee is also taking into account plans for a 12th high school in the northern county in 2004, though no site for it has been chosen.

Later, Guzzone endorsed Lorsung's sally, while western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman said, "I don't think it hurts right now," since the new school won't need planning money for two more years.

"She drew out a clear message from a super-majority [four] of the [school] board, as well as from the superintendent. I view that as very positive," Guzzone said.

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