Officials doubt funding requests will be fulfilled

$86 million for schools considered too much

`That amount is not doable'

Kittamaqundi dredging help has `zero' chance

Howard County

October 20, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The $86.4 million that Howard County school officials are requesting for new buildings, additions and renovations next year is impossibly high, according to county officials who control the purse strings and candidates who would like to.

And the Columbia Association's chances of getting county money to help dredge Lake Kittamaqundi are "zero," County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, said Friday. Republican candidate Steven H. Adler wasn't quite so definite, but said that "it appears at this time they [CA] have more money to fund it than we have."

CA leaders tentatively decided to put aside $1 million for the long-overdue job, but hope to get another $1 million from other sources.

With the state facing a projected $1.7 billion deficit and county revenues that are still flat, Howard officials fear they won't be able to keep up with burgeoning school enrollments and ever-increasing infrastructure repair needs. Even though Howard's vaunted school system is every politician's top priority, no one is willing to go as far as the school board did.

"We're not going to get the money from the state we need. We can't raise people's taxes to get through this," County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman told a Chamber of Commerce breakfast crowd Friday at the Columbia Hilton.

Board members aren't apologizing, though.

"I voted for it because we need it. The kids are there," school board Chairman Jane Schuchardt said. With all-day kindergarten coming and crowded classrooms, especially in the northeastern part of the county, she said the board felt it had to ask for a new northeastern elementary and change the date of the proposed 2008 northern elementary to 2006.

"I don't see it being funded all at one time. ... We've made the attempt," said Schuchardt, who is leaving the board in December, when the winner of the school board race between Courtney Watson and Barry Tevelow will take her spot.

"It's too much. We can't afford it," Robey said of the proposed 54 percent increase in the schools' capital budget. "I know that amount is not doable." This year the capital budget for schools is $55.6 million.

Robey said the board's action "does put me in an untenable position of being the bad guy."

Adler, who has campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes and to prune wasteful spending, said that if elected, "I would try to prevail on them in the future to be realistic" and prioritize their list of requests. Asking for everything at once "sets up false expectations and becomes divisive over the county," Adler said.

When Robey ran into schools Superintendent John O'Rourke on Thursday, "he smiled, and I smiled," Robey said, indicating that they both knew the capital budget request was too high. Robey said that if re-elected, he told O'Rourke they could work out a compromise based on what money is available.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who first suggested building a another school instead of three additions in the northeast, said he's glad the board asked for what it needs. "If we build the capacity, the seats will be filled," he said, adding that he suspects not all the additions would be needed if the school is built.

"We're not going to be able to afford all the projects requested," Merdon told the chamber group.

Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he is not upset either by the board's action. "They need to give us their best list," he said.

Watson, a school board candidate who spent years advocating for a new northeast elementary school that is due to open next fall as Bellows Spring and a new high school, said the board asked for everything at once. "We're probably going to need all those seats, but not in 2006." The board could have taken longer to consider the issue, she said.

Tevelow agreed that the board is "dreaming," and should prioritize its list, adding that he's against school additions that accommodate developers but don't improve core facilities such as cafeterias and auditoriums. Still, he said, "we need additional facilities."

As for giving money to the Columbia Association, Robey said he entertained a similar request several years ago, but the county could not find any state or federal grants available for dredging Columbia's lakes. Columbia officials argue that since a branch of the Patuxent River flows past Kittamaqundi, depositing silt on the way, other agencies should help the private homeowners association pay to restore the lake.

But Adler pointed out that CA has had budget surpluses every year, while the county has none.

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