Budget issues may postpone a high school

Delay is part of Robey's blueprint, sources say

Council could reverse decision

Northern-area facility would be county's 12th

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

An eagerly anticipated new high school in northern Howard County will be delayed for at least a year in County Executive James N. Robey's proposed capital budget, sources said, though the County Council could reverse that decision.

School board and County Council members said a delay in building the planned 12th high school, now due to open in August 2005, would cause severe crowding, but Robey said he could not fund the entire $87.9 million school board construction request. He could have come "very close" to that total if the county's state legislators had approved his plan to increase the county's real estate transfer tax, he said.

Pushing the high school back would take $25.5 million out of the board's request for next fiscal year - by far the largest single amount in the plan.

"This [budget decisions] was more painful this year in anticipation of the request next year," Robey said, noting it likely will be $125 million or more. He refused to confirm or deny the high school delay until his proposed capital budget is released tomorrow.

Robey said he worked closely with school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, allowing school officials to declare their priorities given the total funding available for construction.

But Sandra H. French, school board chairman, said she and the elected board members were excluded from those conversations, despite her request to be included. "I was not invited or informed," she said, asking, "Who did the people elect?"

Even a one-year delay in opening the high school, planned for a site across from Mount View Middle School near West Friendship, would be damaging, French said.

"That is a tremendously humongous big deal. We are going to have to find room somewhere else for 800 to 1,000 more students," she said.

Courtney Watson, a board member who helped organize support for the high school before joining the board, pointed out that money to plan the school was stretched over two years instead of one, delaying the opening from the start.

"Deferring the high school by one year will be devastating, particularly to River Hill High, which will be close to 150 percent of capacity. It will be what happened at Pointers Run Elementary, repeating itself - with some of the same students," she said.

School system projections show that even if the 1,332-seat school opens on time, along with additions at Glenelg and Oakland Mills high schools, the county will be short 396 high school seats by 2006, and 881 seats by 2008. Without the northern school, crowding will worsen, especially at River Hill, Mount Hebron and Centennial high schools.

Linda Bruns, vice president of the Mount Hebron High PTA, had a different view, however, noting that "we really weren't too thrilled it was in the location" the board proposed. Crowding would continue, she said, but " a delay would give us a sigh of relief."

Despite Robey's decision, the County Council can restore the project if the five members are willing to borrow the added money the school would require.

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon is ready to do that.

Delaying the high school is "a step in the wrong direction," he said. "We have borrowing capacity. That has been confirmed by at least one [bond] rating agency. Howard could go up to at least $100 million, and now is the time to bite the bullet."

The county's Spending Affordability Committee recommended borrowing no more than $70 million for capital spending in the uncertain economy, though an official of the Fitch rating agency told the committee that Howard could afford $100 million for one year without losing its coveted AAA bond rating.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican whose district would get the new high school, bemoaned any delay, but he held out hope that the project could begin on time.

"There may be other ways," he said.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat, said he, too, had hoped to fund the entire school board request, but more bond borrowing requires "a dedicated revenue stream that we do not have," he said.

The problem, he said, is that "this will push off the costs until next year, which will make that request higher."

West Columbia Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat who lives in River Hill, said that since the county did not get the transfer tax plan approved, the high school "is the logical project to defer. It makes sense." The board, which redistricted many River Hill residents to Atholton High this year, could remove a 400-student technical magnet program from River Hill High to reduce crowding there, he said.

Robey had hoped to use the higher transfer tax revenue to borrow $215 million for schools over eight years and then pay off the debt. He has vowed to bring the plan back next year.

James P. O'Donnell, Robey's only appointee on the school board, said, "I know we need the 12th high school." But he said he feels crowding in elementary schools is "the biggest challenge."

Watson disagreed. High school enrollments are rising, she noted, while elementary enrollments are slowly leveling off.

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