Bigger schools budget OK'd

Board approves nearly $1 billion for construction for fiscal 2007


Next year's capital budget for the Howard County school system, approved last week, includes $4.4 million more for a new maintenance and warehouse facility, renovations for the board meeting rooms and additional money for site acquisition and school construction reserve funds.

Following the recommendations of Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, the school board unanimously approved a $99.975 million school construction budget for the 2007 fiscal year that begins in July.

The capital spending plan is about $13.5 million more than this year's - or nearly a 16 percent increase - mostly because of the skyrocketing construction costs that have added several million dollars to the price tag.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline on an article in Sunday's Howard County edition of The Sun about the county school system's capital budget was incorrect. The Howard County Board of Education approved a nearly $100 million capital budget, not a $1 billion spending plan.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The school system's budget will be forwarded to the state Interagency Committee for School Construction, which weighs funding requests from Maryland's 24 districts. The school board makes its final budget approval in late spring after funding from the state and county is finalized.

Cousin tweaked his initial capital budget proposal of $95.6 million, responding to the school board's suggestions and those of the public.

The request adds $3 million for the school system's site acquisition and construction reserve, bringing the total to $5 million.

The extra money would be specifically geared toward finding potential school sites in the northeastern region of the county, where growth has been exponential and available land is scarce.

Although enrollment projections don't indicate a definite need for a new school in the next decade, school board members said there are factors and uncertainties in the northeast that require the school system to be prepared to secure land. (A new northeastern elementary school is scheduled to open in August 2007.)

For instance, school officials believe the addition of about 5,000 jobs at neighboring Fort Meade could bring families into Howard County.

School board Chairman Courtney Watson also noted the continuing commercial and residential revitalization of U.S. 1 and continuing impact of the recently completed countywide rezoning.

"Trying to put a site in the northeast is complicated," Watson said Friday. "It's become more and more difficult, so we need to act on it now. We need to have money available if the opportunity presents itself to buy land."

The capital budget also adds $1.1 million in planning money to find a new location for the school system's maintenance and warehouse facility.

Currently, maintenance operations is housed at the former Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High School in Columbia, the county's first high school for black students.

The Harriet Tubman Foundation of Howard County Inc. lobbied school officials to find another site for maintenance so that the group can convert the former school building into a museum and cultural center.

Classroom competition has prevented the construction of a new maintenance facility in the past, but the current facility is "obsolete," Cousin said.

Once the school system secures another maintenance facility, the county has control of the former Harriet Tubman building, Cousin said.

Foundation members are hopeful that the county would transfer ownership of the property to the group.

"I'm in a great mood," said Howard Lyles, the foundation's chairman. "This is a blessing for Howard County."

A new item is the addition of $300,000 to reconfigure the school system's school board meeting rooms to accommodate two more school board members next year when the panel increases to seven.

The meeting rooms, also used by other staff members, need other renovations, school officials said.

The capital budget also includes $15 million for the new northeastern elementary school; $20.5 million for a replacement building for Bushy Park Elementary School; and about $4 million for additions at Waverly, Centennial Lane and Running Brook elementary schools.

Other big-ticket items are $22.3 million for systemic renovations; $8.9 million for renovations and an addition at the old Cedar Lane School in Columbia; and $8.7 million for full-day kindergarten classrooms.

With requests for school construction funding increasing across the state, Howard school officials acknowledge uncertainty in receiving money from the state and county. Revenue from the county's excise tax on new homes for school construction has been nearly exhausted with no new funding sources in sight.

"That is a dilemma we'll have to work with the state and the county in the next six months," Watson said. "Our job is to state the needs of the school system and work with our funding partners to see how much can be funded."

Sun reporter Melissa Harris contributed to this article.

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