Election key on capital spending for schools

Current members OK plan, but new board gets final say

October 06, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

Although the Howard County school board has given preliminary approval to a $99.6 million capital budget for the next school year, the final budget will be set by a still-to-be-determined group of decision-makers: the winners in next month's countywide elections.

Depending on the results of the November election, the school board that approves a capital spending plan in the spring could look completely different from the panel that unanimously set the process in motion Tuesday night.

Board member Courtney Watson said Tuesday's vote was a formality to get the budget submitted to the state.

"The real looking at the individual projects and deciding ... doesn't happen until April," Watson said, well after new board members -- not to mention a new county executive and County Council -- are elected.

Diane Mikulis, the board's vice chairman, said that board turnover and the capital budget process overlap every two years.

"It wasn't a difficult process when I first came on," said Mikulis, who was the new member on the board when she was elected in 2004. "The capital budget should never been foreign to people because we do long-term planning."

There is a possibility that Mikulis, whose term expires in 2008, will be the only member to remain on the board after the general election, in which five board seats are up for grabs.

Watson, who is running for a County Council seat, will leave the school board when her term expires this year.

Mary Kay Sigaty, whose term expires in 2008, is running for the County Council and plans to leave her board seat should she win in November.

Joshua Kaufman, the board chairman, and member Patricia S. Gordon are seeking re-election.

There also will be changes on the County Council, which has the power to restore money to the budget. Only one current council member -- Democrat Calvin Ball -- has the possibility of returning after the November election.

And there will be a new county executive, who will have the power to make revisions to the budget. Current County Executive James N. Robey is seeking a state Senate seat.

Vying to replace him are Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the GOP candidate, and Councilman Ken Ulman, the Democratic candidate.

The preliminary 2008 capital budget includes $11.7 million to expand full-day kindergarten at nine schools; $10.9 million for a new auditorium and renovation at Glenelg High School; $18.9 million for a comprehensive renovation at Mount Hebron High School; and $32.1 million for renovations at Clarksville Middle School and Worthington, Clemens Crossing and Waterloo elementary schools.

Watson said she was pleased that the school board would not have to fund a new school this budget cycle.

"It is time that we catch up with the renovations of all of our older schools," she added.

Although changes to the capital budget will not be made until spring, Sigaty has expressed concern over the facilities for the dance programs at Hammond and Centennial high schools. Sigaty has said that the schools have subpar conditions for dancers, who have to share space with wrestlers. She also said that the floors are unsuitable.

At Tuesday's board meeting, members agreed that they would discuss the issue in the months before the final approval of the budget in May. Watson said Sigaty has "identified a clear inequality."

Mikulis agreed, saying, "This is something we know is a problem."

But Kaufman was cautious.

"There is inequality with dance space, but we have to put it into prospective with other needs," he said.

Officials will have to cope with identifying funding for capital projects. For the past three years, the school system has relied on money from an excise tax to help pay capital costs. But after generating more than $60 million from a $1-per-square-foot surcharge on new homes, that tax has expired.

Watson stressed that it will be important to have discussions with potential candidates about finding revenue to make up for the expired tax.

On Wednesday, board members will meet with County Council members to discuss several topics, including funding for the capital budget.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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