Proposed upgrades at school reopen debate about equity

Newer facilities equipped far better than older ones

Howard County

August 11, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Over the years, Howard County's oldest high school has had numerous additions, renovations and upgrades - a roofing or air-control project here, a new science hall or student services center there.

But when a committee sat down to plan how the school system could best increase capacity at Howard High School by about 150 to 1,332 - the standard for other Howard County high schools - members discovered much more in and around the 51-year-old building that wasn't up to county standards.

When the final list of enhancements reached the school board two weeks ago, the $4 million addition had snowballed into a $12 million building-and-program overhaul for the school on Route 108.

That chasm reintroduces the question of equity between old and new schools. And the way in which the question of revamping the school is resolved might become a model for how other older schools are treated under Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's leadership.

When the committee presented the $12 million proposal, board members were astonished. Committee members were unabashed.

"I think there was a feeling on the committee that - to constantly see things happening in other places, while they were scraping by - it was time Howard got some," said Howard High planning committee member Ellen Flynn Giles. "Enough is enough."

But the debate is about more than the needs of one old school. The gap between the earlier plans for the Ellicott City school and what the committee says absolutely needs to be done reopens a longstanding county debate.

Old schools vs. new schools: Can they be equal?

Most answers to that question ring pessimistic.

"I think that parents [at older schools] need to understand that you're not going to have a Reservoir [High School]; you're not going to have a Long Reach," said school board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt, naming two of the newest schools.

"Unless the community is willing to pay for the renovations and improvements that would bring the older schools up to the level of newer ones, you will continue to have inequities," board member Virginia W. Charles said.

What happens at Howard High under O'Rourke's leadership might determine the answer to that question - and what might happen at other older schools.

Under former leaders, county administrators did only what was feasible within tight budget constraints. Lately, O'Rourke has been indicating that that solution might not be good enough.

"Maybe the answer we got three years ago was that this is the best we can do," O'Rourke said. "Maybe we'll answer that question differently this year."

The board will take up the discussion again at its meeting Aug. 25, after staff members have a chance to take a closer look at what is scheduled to be done at Howard, what the committee wants done and what must be done, no questions asked.

For example, Howard lacks some of the disabled-access features present at many new schools boast - an unmet top priority. Other problems, such as undersized common areas - for example, the cafeteria - and the absence of an auxiliary gym and wrestling room are issues some consider less pressing.

At a recent school board meeting, Bill Brown, the school system's director of planning and construction, told board members that the committee's proposed changes are more than just niceties - they are necessary to provide Howard High with the same educational programming as newer schools.

"We're not talking about aesthetics. We're not talking about maintenance," he said. "We're talking about programming."

There's consensus on that point.

"This is a building that was built in 1951," said Howard's chief financial officer Bruce Venter. "The design of the building doesn't lend itself to the type of program that we're currently offering our students."

But agreement is lacking on whether the school system should bring older schools to the level of the district's newest schools, or to some other but as-yet-undetermined level.

"We should not just be adding seats if it does not meet all the needs of the programs," Schuchardt said. "But I'm not willing to take away money from other projects to do it. I'm inclined to give them what they need to bring them up to the level of schools that are closest to their age."

At the Aug. 25 meeting, O'Rourke said, he will ask staff and board members to consider how the issues at Howard High School underscore the need for a new approach to building maintenance.

"Overall, we have to become far more proficient at dealing with additions, renovations, systemic renovations and land acquisitions. ... We have to get better at anticipating our needs and meeting them, and being less a victim of those needs. That's our burden," he said.

Venter said O'Rourke wants him to help develop a "master capital plan" for the school district, one that goes beyond the money-planning capabilities of the capital improvement plan.

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