School plan includes few new seats

More time needed to study enrollment outlook, officials say

$63.6 million proposal

System exceeds capacity by 4,000 students this year

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 only 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.

"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."

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

When the proposal was released to the school board, Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said that although the number of new projects is small, the budget increase results largely from an unavoidable jump in construction costs.

Because of that, officials didn't want to overload the budget request with additional costly projects, especially considering that 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 that is 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. Only one of those projects is a new initiative.

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

"I really think that we need to address the fact that if we are de facto increasing the size of so many elementary schools with additions," French said, "maybe we need to address that upfront with the size of middle schools. If they're going to give us all these recommendations for all these additions, we should start asking questions."

French said previous projections seemed to indicate a slowing of enrollment, and possibly a decline, after 2004 or 2005. The newest projections, however, show steady growth for several years beyond that.

"So we'd better not slow down in growing schools or building additions," French said. "This is a genuine concern for at least 10 more years. It's a whole generation of students, and we have to provide a quality education in environments that accommodate them."

Glenelg High School PTSA President Terry Chaconas agreed that this year's request should have considered the county's westernmost high school.

Glenelg High has been waiting for years for an 18-classroom addition, upgrades to the school's septic system and renovations that would include the media center and music suite. Problems with the septic system have led to a delay in the $6.5 million project.

"Because the money was set aside years ago, we've lost something like 35 percent of the value," Chaconas said. "I'd like for them to review that. Are they looking at Glenelg with a fresh eye? Is that still enough money to get it done right? I think that would have been appropriate to show up in this capital budget."

Others think O'Rourke's budget request is realistic based on the growing number of children and the troubled economy.

"At this particular point in time, I think that our economy might give us pause," board member Patricia S. Gordon said. "It certainly is going to have an effect on our income. So I think it is better to be a little bit more conservative at this point."

Board member Laura Waters said it might be necessary to build more later but that the budget is reasonable for now.

Ellen Flynn Giles, president of the school board's Citizens Advisory Council, said many factors should be considered before adding projects to the request, which she deemed "prudent."

"We really need to hold back and look at all of the different factors - projected enrollment, reduced available space and what we're going to do about redistricting," she said, "because we're still in the middle of that."

Worse than having too few seats now would be having to close schools later because of hasty overbuilding, she said.

"We don't want to get stuck with buildings we can't use by building additional schools that we won't need after 2012," Flynn Giles said.

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