Howard Week

February 29, 2004

CA board reduces property charge rate by 5 cents

Reacting to sharply increasing Columbia home reassessments, the Columbia Association board of directors dropped the annual property charge rate a nickel as part of the homeowners association's fiscal 2005 operating budget.

The board voted 9-to-0 Feb. 19 to set the rate at 68 cents per $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of the home's value. One member abstained. The new rate is half the reduction the board discussed earlier.

"We're giving the residents a break," said board Chairman Miles Coffman. " ... But we're not mortgaging the future" of the organization.

School superintendent's ouster criticized

Thus far, the Howard County Board of Education's only criterion for its next superintendent is a commitment to the school system's 2-year-old education blueprint that seeks to close academic achievement gaps among poor and minority students.

But many in the community fear that no one can implement the plan as well as its author: ousted Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

"[The board has] undercut everything many of us have been working for, that's exactly what they've done," said Ken Jennings, a vice president with the African American Coalition of Howard County, who denounced the board's decision not to renew O'Rourke's contract when it was due to expire June 30.

While Howard County continues to outscore other districts on assessment tests, some groups still lag behind, and the plan was designed largely to help them.

"O'Rourke is the first person who has come in here and established a comprehensive system for addressing this," Jennings said.

Personality clashes appear to resurface on CA panel

The often-fractious Columbia Association board of directors had one good, collegial year recently, but now seems split again.

In the term that ended last spring, the biggest controversy was a fox that got its paw stuck in a trap near an association golf course, and the 10-member board seemed ready to shed its reputation for bickering.

But the majority that once kept the peace now appears nearly evenly split, bringing personality clashes to the fore once again among the homeowners association's leaders.

There have been lively debates over legislation that would limit the association's assessment revenue, arguments over closed sessions, and one board member was accused of verbally abusing association staff members.

2 tied to youth football club plead guilty in thefts

The 51-year-old former volunteer treasurer of the Columbia Bulldogs Association, a youth football club, pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing thousands of dollars from the organization and from her former employer.

Harriet Williams of Ellicott City pleaded guilty to two counts of felony theft by scheme even though prosecutors said they intend to ask for significant jail time - five to seven years - at her June 11 sentencing.

Williams' attorney, Steven A. Allen, is expected to seek a more lenient sentence. State sentencing guidelines recommend probation or up to six months in jail for each offense.

On Wednesday, the former president of the Columbia Bulldogs, who deposited money meant for the club into his account and kept about $5,000 when he reimbursed the organization a few months later, pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure said before imposing the sentence that Richard A. Valentine, 46, violated the trust of the 175 children who played football through the association.

Panel urges borrowing $80 million in bonds

Howard County should authorize borrowing $80 million in bonds for building projects next fiscal year, and perhaps for several years to come, according to a tentative decision Tuesday by the county's Spending Affordability Committee.

That is $10 million higher than the group recommended last year, but about what the County Council authorized in May. Once made final, the figure will be one more ingredient in next fiscal year's spending mix as the administration of County Executive James N. Robey struggles to satisfy $170 million in capital budget requests.

Full-day kindergarten due at 7 schools in the fall

Seven Howard County schools will offer full-day kindergarten in the fall, Board of Education members decided Wednesday, voting to include the program in the superintendent's proposed operating budget before adopting it as their own.

Members spent much of the meeting trimming $7.6 million from the budget, lowering it to $473.1 million. But the figure is still $15.4 million more than they are likely to get from county officials.

Schools chief reassigns 2 after grade-change inquiry

In the latest blow to Howard County's highly rated school system, its No. 2 official was demoted Thursday, based on the results of an investigation into alleged grade tampering at an Ellicott City high school on behalf of her daughter.

The reassignment was one of the final decisions made by Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who is stepping down Sunday after the school board refused to renew his contract.

Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham was relieved of her duties yesterday morning and reassigned to a teaching position that is yet to be determined. Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett, who was accused of assisting her in strong-arming transcript changes at Centennial High School, has been reassigned as an administrator in charge of working with struggling county schools to improve performance.

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