The Howard County Board of Education hired an ombudsman yesterday after a three-month search and voted to build a replacement school for the crowded Bushy Park Elementary in Glenwood.
At the first school board meeting of the new year, Courtney Watson, the chairman, introduced Robin Shell, who will begin fielding questions and complaints as the school system's ombudsman Feb. 7.
As a part-time employee of the school board, Shell will work three days a week and have an annual salary of $48,000.
"I'm a facilitator, bringing parties together," Shell said in describing her job philosophy.
Shell, 42, of Glenn Dale in Prince George's County, has extensive experience as a conflict mediator. Since October 2003, she has been a volunteer ombudsman for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, helping to resolve disputes between National Guard and military Reserve members and their employers.
Shell, an attorney, also is a mediator for the District Court of Maryland and the Community Mediation Board for the Prince George's Office of Community Relations.
With Shell's appointment, Howard County joins a growing list of Maryland school districts that have ombudsmen, including Montgomery, Queen Anne's and Baltimore counties.
School board members heard the results of a long-expected study to relieve crowding at Bushy Park, where enrollment this year of 698 children is more than 150 percent of capacity. The study examined two alternatives: renovating and expanding the current school or replacing it with a building that would accommodate 788 children.
School administrators recommended to the board construction of a $26.7 million school adjacent to the existing building. Renovating and expanding the existing school would cost $1 million more, and take a year longer to complete, according to the study.
The capital budget proposed for the next school year -- which is under review by the County Council -- includes $10 million to replace Bushy Park Elementary. Initially, Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin had deferred the project to the 2008 school year because of problems posed by Bushy Park's septic system.
But parents pressed the school board for a more immediate solution, and it shifted $10 million earmarked for a new northeastern elementary school to the Bushy Park project.
School officials are working with the state Department of the Environment to obtain permits to expand the septic system as quickly as possible and open the school by August 2007.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," said Bushy Park Principal Rebecca Straw, noting that she was concerned about having students in school during major renovations. "It's less money and less time."
In other business, the board heard from Muslim parents during a hearing on the proposed 2005-2006 school calendar, which does not include observance for two religious holidays: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
This year, Eid al-Adha falls on Jan. 21, last day of high school midterm exams. Anwer Hasan, president of the Howard County Muslim Council, told the school board that several parents have contacted the group asking whether their children should miss midterms and observe their faith, or go to school.
Students who miss school for religious observance receive an excused absence and are still eligible for perfect attendance in Howard County, Watson said.
But Hasan wondered how Muslim students who stay home Jan. 21 can make up midterm exams. School officials said they will work with parents to resolve the issue.
A state education committee recently proposed that Maryland public school students be given up to two "floating holidays" for religious observance.
The board also gave final approval for a potential site of the new northeastern elementary, off Montgomery Road in Ellicott City. The school system is close to a final agreement with Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 7472 and the YMCA, which own the land, Cousin said.