School system's capital budget plan up 41%

Extensive project list, inflation increase costs

Blueprint is at $78.5 million

Development to freeze around eight schools

Howard County

September 27, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County may have a remarkable public school system, but that system is also facing an extraordinary set of challenges -- the magnitude of which was sketched out for the school board last night.

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke proposed a 41 percent increase in capital spending in the coming fiscal year, by far the largest ever, with the aim of keeping up with a rapidly growing school-age population.

Meanwhile, newly released school-crowding estimates predicted the continued closing of development projects in a number of fast-growing areas of the county, beginning in 2006.

And another report showed that some of the county's worst-performing schools are not doing any better, despite three years of effort to turn them around.

The suggested capital budget, which focuses on bricks-and-mortar improvements across the system, asked for nearly $78.5 million -- compared with the current budget of $55.6 million.

This extraordinary rise is due in part to general inflation and in part to mounting construction costs, said Sydney L. Cousin, the deputy schools superintendent.

Add to those factors three additions to school improvement projects already under way and six new projects, and you get the sobering figure, which nearly equals the capital budget of the entire county.

Among the biggest expenditures outlined were a $25.5 million request to begin construction on Northern High School, which is expected to open in Marriottsville in 2005; a $10 million request to start work on the replacement Cedar Lane Elementary School, and a $12.7 million request for various systemwide renovations.

Included with the budget were school-enrollment projections that require halting housing development around seven elementary schools and one middle school, starting in 2006, according to the standard set by the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. That law limits housing construction around schools that have an enrollment exceeding 115 percent of capacity.

The areas to be closed to development surround Hollifield Station, Manor Woods, Northfield, Jeffers Hill, Phelps Luck, Forest Ridge and Hammond elementary schools, and Patapsco Middle School.

The best news all night came from David Drown, the school district's coordinator of geographic systems, who said that even though the Howard student population is still increasing, "it's increasing at a decreasing rate."

Perhaps the most disturbing news came in a report detailing progress made through the School Accountability Funding for Excellence program, which began in 2000 to help bring under-achievers up to speed.

Of the eight participating schools, only two showed improvement in their Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) scores for second-graders from 2000 to 2002: Laurel Woods and Talbott Springs.

Dasher Green, which started out at a reasonably decent level, showed dramatic worsening. In 2000, it had only 9 percent of its students performing in the lowest quartile of the nationwide test. Now it has 31 percent at that level.

Fourth-graders, however, did much better, showing improvement at five of the eight schools. But it still was not enough to hearten some.

"The data indicate very disappointing results to me," said school board member James O'Donnell. "For most of the measures on here, we didn't do what we hoped to do, and we didn't do it consistently."

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