Budget proposal boosts school

It shifts $3 million from fire station to Clarksville rehab


Advocates for school renovations are delighted with a plan to shift $3 million from a proposed new fire station in central Columbia to long-awaited renovations at Clarksville Middle School, as the Howard County Council prepares to take up the school budget in detail during a work session today.

"I was very excited. It was great to see everything work," said Principal Joann Hutchins, who said every major system, from the school's plumbing, heating and electricity to the windows, needs replacement. Regina Thyberg, PTA president at Clarksville, compared using the 29-year-old school building to "driving a 1977 Chevy Vega."

"We're delighted. We feel like it's a good example of the County Council doing the right thing," Thyberg said, thanking Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who represents the area around the school, and Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, for being "instrumental in making this happen."

Ulman and Guzzone did that, they said, by researching the capital budget, where they noticed the $3 million included to help replace the Banneker fire station on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Because there is no firm plan for where the new station will be located, County Executive James N. Robey agreed to move the $3 million from the fire project to the school renovation, allowing the first phase of the Clarksville project to go forward.

"Ken and I researched things and figured it out," Guzzone said, noting that despite the emphasis on building new schools, the county has done more renovations of older buildings in the last eight years.

School officials are hopeful that when construction of two elementary schools in Dayton and Ellicott City -- and a replacement school for Bushy Park Elementary in Glenwood -- is finished, they can stop building new schools and concentrate exclusively on renovations to older buildings. Students and parents from Mount Hebron High School have been agitating for renovations to their school for several years, as have advocates for other older buildings.

Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman, pointed out that there is more at stake than one school.

"It's not just an issue for Clarksville -- there's a domino effect," he said, explaining that if the Clarksville project is held up, it would delay work on Clemens Crossing and Waterloo elementary schools, as well as others.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, was skeptical that the county has turned a corner on the need for new schools, noting that school officials have been predicting that since he first took office in 1998. "There may be a need for more new schools," he said at Saturday's public hearing on the school budget.

Merdon also withheld judgment on the Democrats' planned budget swap, saying, "I want to have a better understanding of the impact on public safety." He and western county Republican Charles C. Feaga complained that Robey had not told them about the idea until Ulman announced it at Saturday's hearing.

At Monday's council budget work session, Ulman said the county has $3 million previously set aside for the fire station, but because no site has been decided on, it was unlikely a second $3 million allocation would be needed in fiscal 2007. By shifting the money to the Clarksville project, the school board will have $6.1 million of the $6.7 million budgeted for the first phase of renovation work there, set to begin in June 2007.

"My commitment to that [fire] station is as strong as ever," Ulman said.

On another fire department matter, a simmering controversy between paid and volunteer firefighters erupted again at a council public hearing Monday afternoon in a speech by Richard L. Ruehl, president of International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 2000.

Ruehl urged the council to approve the capital budget for fire, including a new station for Savage volunteers, but he criticized the county for allowing volunteers what the union considers too much say in how they operate.

"This is a new millennium, yet Howard County's fire service is still in the dark ages," he said.

Earlier Monday, council members whipped through a review of general county agency budgets in about 90 minutes, seemingly on the way to adopting Robey's $1.2 billion spending plan with few, if any, changes.

The council members are to vote May 24 on a completed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.


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