Howard Week

April 25, 2004

Robey spending plan likely to stir debate over schools' needs

Despite 75 police officers rallying for a retroactive pay raise Monday night outside the Howard County government complex in Ellicott City, the toughest choices in County Executive James N. Robey's proposed budget involve class size in county schools.

"This was a challenging year. The last two have been tricky," Robey said, adding that his larger worry is what will happen next year if the $800 million state budget shortfall results in major new cuts in state aid to local governments.

Unlike last year's politically charged battle over higher income taxes, Robey's nearly $1 billion spending plan for fiscal 2005 seems more likely to stir debate over the county's top priority - schools.

For example, there is enough new money for the school board to hire 224 more employees and keep class sizes low, or pay teachers the 6 percent more in salary the board agreed to two years ago - but not both.

The executive's budget includes a 2 percent pay raise for general county workers, starting July 1, and an additional 1 percent raise on the final day of the fiscal year, June 30, 2005.

James F. Fitzgerald, the police union president, organized the unity rally for officers - just before Robey's speech to the County Council - to drive home their complaint that they should have received a 4 percent pay raise this year, instead of half that July 1 last year and the other half May 1.

New mixed-use zones affecting U.S. 1 corridor

Several closely watched developments within the U.S. 1 corridor have changed direction now that the new mixed-use zones recently approved by the Howard County Council have taken effect.

In North Laurel, plans for a gas station in the median strip of U.S. 1 cannot go forward, despite recent approval by the county Board of Appeals, because the use is not allowed in the "corridor activity center" district now placed on the area.

And at the site of a former Elkridge drive-in, 300 to 400 townhouses and condominiums will be built rather than the housing for seniors that was originally proposed. Plans for office buildings and an upscale hotel will continue.

The changes to projects in the pipeline will allow the vision for redevelopment of the largely industrial and commercial commuter corridor to move forward, said Elkridge resident Kevin Doyle, who served as co-chairman of the Route 1 Revitalization Task Force, a group of residents, business owners and county staff that studied the area between Interstate 95 and the Anne Arundel border.

Lisbon grocery to close before Food Lion opens

As Lisbon Center in western Howard County makes room for a nearly 34,000-square-foot Food Lion, an independent grocery store known for its service and excellent fried chicken is preparing to close.

Harvest Fare will shut its doors before Food Lion opens next spring, said James W. Linton Jr., president of Groceteria Inc., which owns Harvest Fare.

Linton said MIE Properties Inc., which owns Lisbon Center and was in search of an anchor store, had given him and his two partners the option to expand. But he said that the partners chose not to commit to a 20-year lease and instead came to an agreement with MIE to close.

French urges creation of policy on grade changes

In response to scandals involving high-ranking Howard County education officials, school board member Sandra H. French is urging the creation of school system policies that govern grade changes and spell out proper ways for public officials to advocate for their children.

If such measures had been in place months ago, they might have prevented the situation that has left at least three educators fighting for their jobs through legal action - including a lawsuit filed this week against the superintendent's office.

In February, former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke demoted two administrators - Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham and Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett - accused of strong-arming transcript changes for Statham's daughter at Centennial High School, a charge both have denied.

O'Rourke also recommended firing Oakland Mills athletic director, coach and history teacher Ken Hovet, who has been on leave since November and has not been paid since January. In a letter dated Feb. 12, O'Rourke accused Hovet of being "actively involved in changing grades in order to render [a] student eligible for athletics."

All three have appealed the decisions, but the results of their hearings won't go before the board for a final verdict until some time between mid-May and late June, said Courtney Watson, school board chairman.

Hovet filed a civil suit Tuesday in Howard County Circuit Court claiming that the superintendent's office - now occupied by Sydney L. Cousin, who has replaced O'Rourke on an interim basis - wrongfully denied him access to documents he requested through the state's Public Information Act.

His complaint said he needed the papers to prepare his appeal, and he is suing for their release as well as unspecified damages and attorney's fees.

Teen's lawyers dropping plan for insanity defense

Lawyers for an Ellicott City teen-ager accused of fatally poisoning a classmate last year by spiking his soda with cyanide have decided not to pursue an insanity defense.

Instead, they hope that a Howard County judge will allow them to present evidence at trial that Ryan T. Furlough, 19, was so emotionally and mentally impaired at the time that he could not have willfully planned Benjamin Edward Vassiliev's death and therefore could not be guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder, according to information presented in new court filings and during a court hearing Thursday.

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