Shifting of school priorities criticized

Board president calls for clearer goals, public talks in planning construction

October 01, 2006|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

Pressing for substantive changes, Carroll County's school board president said the recent flap over how the district prioritizes its construction projects has shown that the process must be improved to include clearer goals and better communication.

"Sometimes we have a tendency to become complacent in our decision-making," board president Thomas G. Hiltz said. "We say this is the way they've always been done."

But he said it is not acceptable to be guided by "the way we've done it all the time."

Each year, the school system ranks its educational needs -in a document called the educational facilities master plan - and then prepares a list of construction priorities for a capital improvement plan. Traditionally, the two documents are closely aligned.

This year, however, changes were made in the construction priority list after school board members had approved the educational facilities master plan.

The changes did not sit well with board members.

"This has not been the best planning cycle," Hiltz said during last week's school board meeting, when members approved a capital improvement plan that included more changes.

During the past two months, the top three positions on the capital improvement plan have shifted in priority. The first plan, introduced in early August, listed construction of Ebb Valley Elementary for the northeast region as the top priority for local funding. On that plan, a new high school for the northeast area and construction to accommodate all-day kindergarten at Freedom Elementary were ranked second and third, respectively.

A second plan, introduced in late August, made Freedom the top priority, the South Carroll fine arts addition (which was ranked No. 6 on the first plan) the second priority and a new high school in the northeast region the third priority.

The most recent plan, which school board members approved last week, made the northeast-area high school the top priority, Freedom Elementary the second and the South Carroll fine arts addition the third.

School officials said some of the changes were made to line up projects with likely funding. For instance, county commissioners have signaled a willingness to build the high school without state funding.

"Enrollments [in the northeast area] are trending downward and we don't have as much justification as we thought to seek state funding," said facilities director Raymond Prokop.

Other changes were made out of necessity. For example, Freedom Elementary - which was not listed on the educational facilities master plan - was added to the capital improvement plan when school officials discovered the building couldn't accommodate all-day kindergarten without an addition.

"The process by which Freedom got put up at the last minute needs to be looked at," Hiltz said.

He said he understood the need to place Freedom high on the list of priorities to meet next year's state mandate to provide all-day kindergarten, but "I think we need to look at that process."

School officials also need to contemplate better ways of communicating facilities information with the public, Hiltz said. He suggested greater use of the district's Web site and more public work sessions.

"I realize information changes, and we need to be strong enough to respond to those changes," Hiltz said.

Hiltz said key elements of an improved system would include a capital improvement program that has timelines assigned to each proposed project. That way, the public could more easily track when a project was initially proposed, its priority at any given point and how it has been addressed. "We need a history and a rationale in a snapshot," he said.

Board vice president Gary W. Bauer said it would be helpful to board members and the public to have such a record.

Bauer said the information could help people understand changes that have transpired since a project was initially proposed.

"It's more information for the public to see and for us to use," Bauer said. "It opens up the process for more people to understand how the process works. ... It's not a simple process."

Project requests

Carroll school board members approved a $105 million budget request for construction projects for fiscal 2008, which starts July 1, 2007.

The top six projects include:

Ebb Valley Elementary - $6 million requested from state and no monetary request from county.

New northeast area high school - $60 million requested from the county and none from the state.

Freedom Elementary kindergarten addition - $1.3 million requested from the state and $2.4 million from the county.

South Carroll High School fine arts addition - $1.7 million requested from the state and none from the county.

HVAC improvements at Westminster High - $15 million requested from the state and $11 million from the county.

These figures do not represent total costs for the projects.

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