School board plans a more aggressive construction stance

Exclusion from talks hardened resolve for change, French says

April 02, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With available funds shrinking as demand for new school classrooms rises, Howard County's school board plans to take a more aggressive stance in setting next year's school construction priorities, Chairman Sandra H. French said yesterday after a meeting between the board and the County Council.

"We're going to change the process," she said, with the board discussing building priorities in late August - a month before Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and his staff present their plan in public.

French and other board members' determination to make changes was strengthened recently by the revelation that they were left out of last-minute discussions between O'Rourke and County Executive James N. Robey about which projects to delay because of a shortage of money.

"If all stakeholders should be included, I cannot think of a more important stakeholder than the elected Board of Education," French said, referring to the frequent appeals from residents to be included more often in board discussions.

"It's something that needs to be fixed for next year," said board member Courtney Watson, who French said will help guide the board based on her years as a parent advocate and a board member in pushing for more schools to ease crowding.

"We need to talk about priorities," French said, adding that the "board should be involved at every single level of discussion."

O'Rourke confirmed that he spoke with Robey about what projects to delay without including any board members. Robey's $54.4 million capital budget plan for schools would delay the new northern high school and a new northern elementary school.

"It was just a conversation," the school superintendent said. "We talked about it, but in fact it's his [Robey's] decision," though O'Rourke confirmed that given the money available, he agreed to delay the high school one year.

Next spring's capital budget proposal could be critical for Howard's school construction program because just three projects - the new western and northeastern elementary schools and the new northern high school - will together account for $3 million more than Robey proposed Monday for the entire school construction program in the year starting July 1.

Without some new source of money, other things in that fiscal 2005 plan - such as $15 million for older-school renovations, classrooms for all-day kindergarten, a third new elementary in the northern county, additions and renovations at Howard and Glenelg high schools and additions at Waverly, Bushy Park and Gorman Crossing elementaries - would all be uncertain.

"The future is nothing but grim," O'Rourke said about the county's financial squeeze - the result of the poor national economy that has eliminated county budget surpluses along with most state school construction funding.

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat, said he is hoping that when Robey goes back to the county's General Assembly contingent next year, the legislators will approve an increase in the real estate transfer tax, providing a separate dedicated revenue stream the county can use to borrow and pay off $215 million over eight years for schools. The legislators rejected the request this year.

"If that doesn't work, the only way to fund it is some other tax to help support the debt service," Guzzone said.

Other council members said they hope things improve by next year. "I can only take one year at a time," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon. The money crunch makes careful consideration of how to spend what is available even more important, and Watson said the board is faced with a "very compressed" period to examine and then approve a capital budget because of pressure to apply for state school construction funding each autumn.

"We would get the [enrollment] projections and we had to approve it basically in a two-week timeline. That allowed the board to have one work session and approval in the same meeting," Watson said.

The new process would add another work session in September and one in February for late changes. That means three more public sessions, she said.

By contrast, this year, "We made a lot of changes in the capital budget at the last minute. We changed the size of elementary schools." The new process, she said, represents "a complete revision of the way we approve the capital budget."

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