Lack of funds could mean big school changes

Prospect of split shifts, yearlong schooling raised

Construction money needed

Robey seeking increase in home transfer tax

Howard County

January 30, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's schoolchildren and their parents can expect major classroom changes if county and state officials don't find more money for school construction, school board member Courtney Watson says.

"If they don't give us another revenue source, we'll have to look at split shifts or year-round schooling. There's no other answer," says Watson, the board's newest member and a veteran parent activist who has pushed for more new classrooms.

"We definitely need more money for the schools. They're so far behind, there's no way to catch up," says Diane Butler, president of the St. Johns Community Association in Ellicott City, where 40 percent of new homes in the county were built last year.

Political leaders - Democrats and Republicans - agree that significant financial aid is needed. But no agreement has been reached on how to raise the money, which Howard school officials say they need for a $48 million high school, two elementary schools and up to 80 new kindergarten classes during the next few years.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, has proposed using an increase in the county's real estate transfer tax to repay $215 million in bonds that would be sold to fund the construction. Some Republicans do not like that idea. No one has produced an alternative plan, however, and Robey says he has "no Plan B."

With Robey's transfer tax idea facing a Feb. 12 vote of the county's legislative delegation, County Council members are scrambling to find another idea or to help forge a compromise.

"I'm not convinced Robey's proposal is right, but there is a problem," Republican state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman said, adding that the school board needs money.

Because the transfer tax is in state law, an increase must be approved separately by the county's eight delegates and by its three state senators. That means Kittleman and fellow Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader can kill the plan.

Schrader said she is undecided but worried about increasing the cost of buying a home. "It's not an equal tax, because it's only applied to people buying homes," she said.

Robey argues that sales of all homes are fueling the crowding of classrooms. Using a separate fund to borrow against, and then to pay off the debt, would preserve the county's general funds, he said.

Robey's plan would increase the cost of buying or selling a house - by $1,250 on a $250,000 house - which has drawn opposition from county real estate agents.

Some blame Robey for not forging a political consensus before releasing his plan this month.

"We were told about this in early January. Why not in July? Or October? We're expected to jump, lockstep, in place. We are trying to do something, trying to be responsible" and are not working just for political advantage, said County Council member Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican.

If the transfer tax increase fails, and "there's no Plan B," as Robey has said, "that would fall back in our laps," Kittleman said.

Some Democrats privately fault Robey for what they call a top-down approach to pushing the issue, and the outcome is still in doubt. But parents and school officials said a lot is at stake.

"This is indeed a serious issue, and I really think we will be looking at serious measures if we do not get additional revenues," though neither split shifts nor year-round school are likely for several years, said Sandra H. French, school board chairman.

The board must produce the 80 new all-day kindergarten classrooms by 2007 to meet new state educational requirements, and with school enrollments growing by about 1,000 students a year, the pressure is growing for more new buildings.

Robey is to meet with the county's PTA Council membership Monday night at school board headquarters and with county legislators Wednesday in Annapolis, before their Feb. 6 public hearing at the George Howard building in Ellicott City.

The county executive said that faced with $170 million in capital budget requests for next year, including $86.3 million for schools, no surplus cash and declining state support, he had to do something.

"Where do I find the money?" he asked, adding that the county cannot postpone needed things forever. If legislators do not approve his plan, he said, "they need to be held accountable for their decision. I've got to deal with the politics and also deal with doing the right thing."

Allan Kittleman and County Council member Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, were conferring yesterday to plan for a meeting with Robey next week.

They want the executive to release his draft capital budget and transfer tax revenue projections to them now, though their review of school enrollment data has satisfied them that sales of existing homes are sending as many new students to Howard schools as sales of new homes, even in Ellicott City.

"We were surprised," Kittleman said, and the information prompted Merdon to back away from the impact fees, or new-home surcharge fees, that he suggested to a community group Monday night.

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