Few solutions developed in school board session

County tries to push more projects into 2003 spending plan

October 12, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard County Board of Education members agonized last night over a balancing act they just couldn't seem to master: how to approve a proposed capital budget that is several million dollars more than last year's, and still doesn't include all the projects needed in a district bulging with students.

As their work session stretched into the night, board members appeared ready to hold the bottom line on their conservative construction budget for next school year.

"The new [enrollment projection] numbers are really quite breathtaking in some ways," said board Vice Chairwoman Sandra H. French.

Faced with steadily increasing enrollment in an already crowded school system, board members struggled to figure ways to include more additions in Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's proposed capital budget in fiscal year 2003.

O'Rourke released his proposed capital spending plan last month. The $63.6 million plan is $7 million more than last year's. But it includes only two new projects: a 117-seat addition to Clarksville Middle School and 50 more seats tacked onto an addition planned for Rockburn Elementary School.

Board members quizzed school administrators about the possibility of increasing the size of the Clarksville Middle School addition, Long Reach and Howard high schools, Pointers Run Elementary School and Folly Quarter, the new western middle school scheduled to open in 2003.

Each suggestion came back with answers clouded by ambivalence.

When French asked about adding a two-classroom kindergarten pod to Pointers Run, for example, Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the building could possibly handle another addition - despite three already - but it would be expensive. Cousin also said it wouldn't be a wise project if enrollment happened to drop in the future.

"It can be done," Cousin said. "A project like that could be designed and built in a year, but it's going to add to the bottom line. We're asking for a considerable amount of money at a time when there's concern about the economy and about how much revenue is coming in."

When French asked about the feasibility of moving up a 150-seat addition at Rockburn Elementary School, Cousin responded, "That's certainly not the preferred way of building. It's difficult to do, but not impossible to do."

Cousin and Bill Brown, director of planning and construction, addressed nearly every idea and suggestion in the same vein.

Add more seats to Howard High School? No.

Build an addition to Long Reach High School, so it will accommodate 1,600 students? No.

Defer an addition to Fulton Elementary School and use that money for other, more necessary additions? Not likely.

Relieve crowding in the northeastern part of the county by trying harder to find a site there for a planned-for 12th high school? Not likely.

Cousin stressed how difficult it is to find a 15-acre site in the northeast for an elementary school. Officials prefer to build high schools on 50 acres, he said.

"But if there's [a site] there [in the northeast], we'd look at it. We're looking for a 50-acre site, but we'd consider any site," Cousin said.

"But you're also saying you looked forever for a 15-acre site and it's not ideal [for the elementary school]?" O'Rourke added.

Board members had few ideas for solutions last night.

Well into the night, in fact, one of the few things that had been decided was that the district has to begin planning space and land issues earlier - not just for the next year's budget.

"As the county continues to grow, land continues to shrink," Cousin said. "We need to think about what's going to happen 10, 15, 20 years from now - when I'm eligible to retire."

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