Council determined to limit school costs

Superintendent wants $150 million in funding for construction plans

October 08, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As Howard County's school board prepares this week to whittle down a record $150 million school construction request for next year, County Council members made it clear in a meeting with the education panel yesterday that they are determined to limit spiraling costs.

It was a theme woven through several issues the groups discussed in their regular quarterly session at school board headquarters - from plans to revamp vocational education to progress on the 12th high school.

"It is very, very likely that the County Council will have to make a decision on raising taxes again," Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, told the board. But before any vote on taxes, he said, the council wants to be able "to go confidently to the public" to assure citizens the money is needed.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Wednesday's Howard County edition of The Sun about a meeting between the County Council and the school board, two comments of board Chairman Sandra H. French were misstated.
In a discussion of high school design, French defended the use of atriums in the prototype design used in building Reservoir and Long Reach high schools and in plans for the new 12th high school, calling them necessary rather than being aesthetic features.
And in noting the school board's desire to retain ownership of the former Faulkner Ridge and Cedar Lane elementary school buildings, she said the future uses of those buildings are undecided. The Sun regrets the errors.

That sentiment echoed one sounded by County Executive James N. Robey in commenting this week on a citizens committee he appointed to find ways to pay for more classrooms. The group recommended raising the county's real estate transfer tax to create a dedicated fund for school construction. Robey said he will convene a "summit" this year to find ways to reduce capital costs.

At yesterday's council-school board meeting, Merdon's remarks came after council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, asked whether plans to change the vocational technical program by creating academies at local high schools rather than centralized magnet programs would produce future construction costs.

"There's no way to anticipate what this will look like in three, five or 10 years," schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke replied.

That didn't satisfy the councilmen, however.

Merdon recalled voting to lower class sizes in first and second grades to a 19-1 student-teacher ratio - without realizing that smaller classes meant the county would need more classrooms to house about 2,000 students, which is equal to four elementary schools.

Merdon also noted that education officials estimate 30 percent of the space in the technical high school building on Route 108 is taken for administration, and he questioned the number of teachers' aides and support staff the school system employs. But Sandra H. French, the board chairman, said the system needs more administrative space because of all of the programs being launched, and would keep the former Faulkner Ridge Elementary building and the nearby Cedar Lane School - both in west Columbia - for that purpose.

"We need those buildings. There's no way we're going to give them up to the county," French said.

Guzzone, too, warned that if school officials expect council support for the vocational program, the "long-term capital budget must reflect something" of possible building costs now, rather than later.

When the much-disputed 12th high school - referred to as "northern high" - came up, board member Courtney Watson voiced complaints similar to those aired by Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, who said his constituents complain that the huge atrium at Wilde Lake High School is wasted space. "I'm very concerned about construction costs," he said.

French said Wilde Lake uses the central atrium to allow a central stairway and a better flow of students - not for aesthetic reasons. She said the new high school, which formally began construction yesterday, uses a newer high school design that was employed in building Long Reach and Reservoir high schools - modified this time for a more utilitarian appearance.

Kittleman said French's argument on Wilde Lake is a "hard sell" with his constituents.

Watson circulated an architectural description of the new high school, scheduled to open in August 2005, that says "architectural features such as high, sloped roof angles, complicated shapes, and wide window openings were avoided" to save money and avoid the look of grandeur.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman also warned that if the board thinks the high school won't open on time, "we're not going to approve" the $40 million cost included in next year's capital budget for the building. School officials said classrooms should be ready on time, even if common areas such as gymnasiums and auditoriums aren't finished.

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