Howard plan includes few new seats for schools

October 01, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A careful look at the newly released proposed capital budget for the Howard County school district reveals two important facts.

Although the school system has enrolled about 46,000 students this year, its buildings have a capacity of about 42,000.

And, despite the dearth of classroom space, the budget recommends that 167 new seats be planned. School district officials have stressed that the proposal - which would take effect in July - is purposely conservative to give them more time to study new enrollment projections.

Some people wonder whether more should be done. Others think "conservative" is wishful thinking.

On Sept. 20, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke proposed a $63.6 million spending plan, $7 million more than last year's.

"Even though I think there's only one new project listed in the budget, it's certainly by no means a conservative number," said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. "Sixty-three million [dollars] in almost any venue is a lot of money. I think the conservative number they gave is going to be quite a challenge for the county to meet."

When the spending plan was released to the school board, Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said that although new projects are few, construction costs are higher.

Because of that, officials didn't want to overload the budget request with additional costly projects, especially because many school additions are planned for subsequent years, he said.

"There are a lot of additions coming on board in 2004," Cousin said. "And, if need be, we will be adding projects in the future if we need more capacity."

This year's request includes one elementary school addition to be completed next school year, a new elementary and middle school for 2003, additions to an elementary and a middle school for 2003, and additions for two high schools, one middle school and five elementary schools for 2004.

Sandra H. French, school board vice chairwoman, said more thought should be put into this year's budget request.

Previous projections seemed to indicate a slowing of enrollment, and possibly a decline, after 2004 or 2005. The newest projections show steady growth for several years beyond that, she said, "so we'd better not slow down in growing schools or building additions."

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