Group wants old school

Nonprofit wants Tubman building to be a museum


African-American leaders in Howard County are renewing efforts to convert the county's first high school for black students - Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High School in Columbia - into a museum and cultural community center.

Members of the Harriet Tubman Foundation of Howard County Inc. are lobbying the school system to find another site for its maintenance operations, which are at the former school building.

Head Start classes also use the former school building, but the foundation supports keeping the program there.

"We're bringing it to a head," said Ken Jennings, the foundation's vice chairman and vice president of operations for the African American Coalition of Howard County, which is supporting the foundation's efforts. "It's been a long-standing desire for the black community."

Last week, the foundation presented to the school board a proposal that outlines a plan for the school system to acquire land for a new maintenance facility, renovate Harriet Tubman School and eventually transfer ownership to the county, which would turn over the property to the foundation.

The plan would require adding money into the proposed $95.6 million capital budget for fiscal year 2007. The school system is evaluating the feasibility of the foundation's proposal.

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told the board last week that the school system has had a plan for a new maintenance warehouse and that school officials would update the plan's cost to today's dollar to come up with a price tag for the project.

"Eventually, we need to find space for a maintenance facility," he said. "We've been inadequately operating in that space for years."

With the state's $600 million budget surplus and a push by leaders in the Baltimore region to allot $400 million for school construction, foundation chairman Howard Lyles said this is the perfect time to jump-start the group's mission.

"First of all, it's been a couple of years since we sought to get the [Harriet Tubman] school vacant" of the school system's maintenance operations, Lyles said.

"Since we have not seen any major progress in that area, we thought we would renew our concerns and interest."

School officials acknowledge the former Harriet Tubman School is "woefully inadequate" to house maintenance operations, but as in previous years, the school board is facing another year of tight finances - especially in light of skyrocketing construction costs that have added millions to the proposed capital budget.

Historically, money for maintenance has been on the back-burner because of other pressing needs.

"It's something we talk about every year," school board Chairman Courtney Watson said of finding another maintenance facility.

"We need to find them better space, and the Harriet Tubman [Foundation] would like us to do that as soon as we can, so another use of the building can be determined. The problem is our capital budget is very challenging, and maintenance is usually last on the list."

Harriet Tubman School closed in 1965, when Howard County schools fully integrated.

The nonprofit foundation was established in 2002 to preserve the building in honor of the school.

Foundation members say there is a need for a community center to organize and hold cultural activities and education programs.

"We've got all these kinds of things we could do within the African-American cultural center to enrich the whole community," Jennings said.

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