Stone questions budget changes

Priorities don't match school projects plan, he says

September 17, 2006|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,[SUN REPORTER]

Moving up an addition at Freedom Elementary to accommodate all-day kindergarten, advancing the fine arts addition at South Carroll High and delaying by a year plans for a South Carroll-area middle school are among several changes to the Carroll County school system's proposed building-projects budget request.

Because this prioritization doesn't mirror an earlier school-system document -- called the facilities master plan -- at least one school board member is concerned about the apparent reordering of priorities.

"My understanding is that the facilities master plan is our principle document for setting priorities," board member C. Scott Stone said in a phone interview after last week's school board meeting. "I expect the Board of Education to approve a capital improvement program [budget request] that has those projects in the same priority order as the facilities master plan."

The facilities master plan places a new northeast-area high school ahead of South Carroll's fine arts addition.

Stone said he accepts the addition of construction at Freedom Elementary in Sykesville because its need was identified after the facilities master plan was approved. The construction is needed to make room for all-day kindergarten, which the state requires every district to provide by next school year.

The Freedom project had been the third-highest priority before last week. If approved, it would become the district's top priority in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The board is expected to vote on changes at its Sept. 27 meeting.

But during last week's board meeting, Stone pressed Superintendent Charles I. Ecker for an explanation of what led to moving up the fine arts project.

Stone also requested "compelling reasons" for pushing back the completion dates of a modernization project at the Carroll Career and Technology Center in Westminster, and construction of a middle school for the South Carroll area.

Regarding the Career and Technology Center project, Ecker said he pushed it back a year to allow time to draft a plan based on a consultant's recommendations, which include the option of replacing the center with a school at another site. He said that because he doesn't have a plan for building a school to present to state education officials, he isn't ready to propose the project.

But board president Thomas G. Hiltz said the five-member board hadn't decided whether to build or modernize.

"Seems to me that before we make any decisions about whether we want to build a new school, we need to talk to the [state schools construction funding committee] to figure out exactly what their opinion might be to help inform our approach," Hiltz said.

Regarding the South Carroll-area middle school, Ecker said the changes would align the school system's plans more closely with the county government's priorities -- which include planning funds for the middle school in fiscal year 2009, a year later than the school system's original plans.

But Stone said it hasn't been unusual in years past for the school system's priorities to differ from the county's list. He said the school system's list should be driven by students' needs, not the county's financial picture.

Facilities director Raymond Prokop said in an interview later that while he agrees with Stone that the two school system documents should reflect similar priorities, the facilities master plan is not meant to be a prioritizing tool.

"If we were to do that, everything would need to be done today," he said. "We take the needs and we cascade them out in calendar form. We're trying to show the need, but also give a nod to the financial reality."

But Stone said the school system's documents should always reflect the needs of students.

"If these changes are to simply align with the county's [building projects plan], then it's not right," Stone said. "The board should be about what's in the best interests of kids."

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