12th high school may get back on schedule

County needs to find $6.4 million to be on track

Brainstormers delighted

State permit still a hurdle for West Friendship site

Howard County

April 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After weeks of public agitation and private brainstorming, Howard County's proposed 12th high school may be back on track for a 2005 opening instead of enduring a year's delay, according to county officials.

One of two key problems - the lack of money in the next budget year - could be solved quickly, and at half the earlier advertised price, according to County Council members at a public meeting about the school last night in Ellicott City.

The other problem - obtaining a crucial state environmental permit - is less certain, Deputy School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said. That was emphasized at last night's meeting by David Fairchild, who with a small group of people living near the proposed school site across from Mount View Middle School in West Friendship, oppose building there.

"This is a big mistake," he said, vowing to oppose granting of a state sewage discharge permit for the school at a hearing next week. The site off Old Frederick Road is outside the area served with public sewerage, so the new school would require a septic system.

And officials cautioned that even if the funding problem for fiscal 2004 is solved, a bigger one looms in 2005 - brought on partly by the refusal last winter of the county's state legislators to approve a real estate transfer tax increase that would have produced $30 million a year for schools for seven years.

But even with enough money and the permit, 2005 represents "the most optimistic [construction] schedule we have for the school," Cousin said.

The key to solving the immediate problem was figuring out the least amount of money needed to further the new high school enough to allow completion for an August 2005 opening.

County Executive James N. Robey proposed borrowing a record $71.7 million for building projects next fiscal year, including $4.5 million to do site work and build a foundation for the school. But he balked at borrowing $21 million more that the school board requested for the project, insisting that would be fiscally unsound.

Community meetings

County Council Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman of the western county and school board member Courtney Watson then began attending community meetings to build public support to keep the high school on track - a campaign County Council members did not attempt during the debate over the transfer tax plan.

Meanwhile council Democrats, led by Chairman Guy Guzzone of North Laurel-Savage, also worked quietly to find a financing solution.

Yesterday, Cousin said he determined that $6.4 million more would keep the school on schedule, though a $35 million balloon payment will be needed in fiscal 2005 to finish the job.

Late yesterday, a frustrated Robey wondered why he was not told about the minimum funding option earlier. "That's disappointing. I want that school opened and I want it opened in 2005," he said.

"The question that was raised [recently] was what do you need to get by?" Cousin said. "We weren't asked that question" earlier.

To find the extra millions, Cousin said, he has directed an analysis of other projects to see if some excess money can be squeezed from them.

Guzzone and Merdon told residents last night that the five councilmen can add several million more in bond borrowing to fill the gap. In addition, more state school construction money may become available.

Good feeling

Last night, congratulations flowed freely.

"Public participation is what made this all happen," Kittleman said. "The only credit we get is that we listened."

Guzzone said, "We've all been working on this issue - working on parallel paths."

East Columbia Councilman David A. Rakes, a Democrat, said, "We've all come together at this point. Partisanship doesn't play at this point."

School board member James P. O'Donnell said, "This is fantastic, but next year is critical."

And lest anyone get too giddy, Sue Tompkins, one of the parents who began pushing first for the new school, offered a word of warning: "When we looked out to 2010-2011, there is a need for a 13th high school."

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