Councilmen lobby for new high school

Kittleman, Merdon seek support despite financial squeeze

Cut from budget by Robey

School board member joins pair at meetings with PTAs, parents

April 10, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County councilmen and a school board member are on the campaign trail again, but this time they're lobbying for something other than their own elections.

Christopher J. Merdon and Allan H. Kittleman, the only council Republicans, have been systematically setting up appointments with school PTAs and groups of parents in search of backing for an expensive plan that would return funding for Howard's 12th high school to the county's capital budget for the coming fiscal year.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, cut funding for the school from the budget because he said capital requests for schools and other projects far exceeded the county's financial capacity.

Robey had come up with a plan to increase the county's real estate transfer tax to repay bonds over 8 years that could be sold to pay for $215 million in new school construction, including the new high school.

Members of the state's legislative delegation rejected that proposal.

Now Merdon and Kittleman hope to persuade at least one of the three Democrats on the five-member County Council to join them and overrule Robey's decision and provide funding for the school, which school board members, administrators and politicians agree is needed to relieve crowding.

Merdon and Kittleman support cutting funds from other areas in Robey's $148.5 million budget, though they don't yet know from where, and borrowing the rest. Robey has proposed borrowing a record amount by selling $71.7 million in bonds to help fund the budget, which is to take effect July 1.

Board of Education member Courtney Watson has accompanied the two Republicans as they have made their sales effort.

Last night, Kittleman, whose western district would get the new school, met with River Hill High School parents and community members to make sure they understood that "irreparable harm" in the form of crowding would result if the school is not opened on time in 2005.

"This is the one project that I really care about more than anything else in the whole capital budget," Kittleman said. "I have to let the citizens know what the situation is and what they can do to support getting the funding."

Kittleman is urging county residents to contact other council members and testify at a budget hearing May 3.

Watson said River Hill High School, which opened in 1996 and is already crowded, will be the most affected if the new school isn't built.

"The school is projected to be 593 kids over capacity in 2005. And it goes up each year," Watson said. By 2006, River Hill is expected to be short by 624 seats, Watson said.

The new high school can lessen that, the politicians said, as well as help relieve the crowding at Mount Hebron and Centennial high schools, along with others in the western part of the county. That's why the three are traveling to as many schools as they can to plead their case.

On Monday, Watson and Kittleman hit four elementary schools - including Triadelphia Ridge and Hollifield Station - and they have plans to visit four more schools April 28 (Worthington Elementary and Mount View Middle among them). Calls are in to several others, as well.

"We're trying as hard as we can to get a hold of every school we think could be affected by [the delay]," Kittleman said.

"It was already put off for a year. It was supposed to open in 2004," said Merdon, who wasn't at the meeting yesterday. He was in the hospital with his wife and new son, born Monday.

During last year's capital-budget crunch, the council agreed to delay the school's completion to 2005, and Merdon, who represents Ellicott City, said he doesn't want to see that happen again.

The school system's capital budget request is expected to be upward of $125 million next spring, and state aid could be as poor as this year's $4.4 million.

"Next year's fiscal condition doesn't look any better than this year's," he said. "Does that mean it's going to be pushed back to 2007?"

The building of a new northern elementary school was also delayed when Robey cut the school board's capital budget wish list, which went to the county executive at $87 million. The executive's version stands at $54.4 million.

"I know we need another high school badly," said newest council member David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat. "But Mr. Merdon and Mr. Kittleman can come up with a more creative way of getting one."

Rakes said he supports finding funding for the school, but not through further borrowing, in part because he is worried about maintaining the county's AAA bond rating, which Merdon and Kittleman say won't be in jeopardy by tacking on the $20 million needed to build the school.

But Rakes also thinks sitting tight on the high school for another year will give Robey's proposed 50 percent increase in the county's transfer tax a better shot next year in Annapolis.

"It's all about funding," said former school board candidate Barry Tevelow, who suggested taking from the proposed operating budget, not yet out, to fill the void in the capital budget.

"It's a bad economic year. There's no question about that," Kittleman said. "We're going to have a hard time meeting some of our needs. But the 12th high school is a need we can't delay."

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