Schools, revenue in focus

Skyrocketing construction costs revive talk of a new fund source

February 25, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

The skyrocketing cost of renovating or replacing Mount Hebron High School is reviving interest in finding a new revenue source to pay for Howard County school construction projects.

With the rebuilding estimated to cost up to four times the $22.5 million for Mount Hebron in the current capital budget, and three more high schools -- Atholton, Centennial and Hammond -- in line for renovations, the potentially divisive issue is headed back to center stage.

Diane Mikulis, chairman of the Board of Education, is planning to raise the revenue issue with County Executive Ken Ulman soon after members approve the proposed operating budget Tuesday.

"This Mount Hebron issue has really hit home in terms of the cost of renovations," Mikulis said Friday after a discussion between the school board and County Council members.

The problem has resurfaced because money raised from a tax on new homes adopted by the General Assembly three years ago has been exhausted, and construction costs are rising by double-digit percentages each year.

Without more revenue, the county cannot afford to do school projects and also meet other demands, from renovating dozens of neglected storm-water ponds to constructing a new circuit court building.

In 2003, the county's state legislators rejected proposals by former County Executive James N. Robey to raise up to $200 million by increasing the real estate transfer tax on all home sales. But now, with Robey serving as a state senator and former County Councilman Guy Guzzone a state delegate, the political balance might be different.

"I'm not surprised. We foresaw this," Robey said about the alarm over growing school construction costs.

Meanwhile, the funding saga has startled county officials.

Ulman said the estimates for Mount Hebron are "staggering." The capital budget sets aside $22.5 million for Mount Hebron, but school officials are pushing a $50 million renovation option. A new school would cost up to $90 million -- about double the cost of Marriott's Ridge, the system's newest high school, which opened in August 2005.

"This Mount Hebron issue is affecting the entire capital budget," Ulman said late Friday. "I was under the impression I wouldn't have to build any new high schools."

Still, it is too soon to talk about new revenue sources, he said.

At the meeting, several board members said they could delay making a decision on Mount Hebron to allow more time for research. It would also give Ulman time to consider revenue options.

Linda Dombrowski, a Mount Hebron parent representing the community at the meeting Friday, said she was encouraged to hear the detailed discussion.

"The community is willing to work with the school system," even if a decision is delayed, she said, but "we don't want to lose our place in line" for renovations.

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said at the meeting that school construction costs $240.11 per square foot, according to state formulas. Five years ago, when Marriott's Ridge's contracts were awarded, the cost was $135.11 per square foot.

Ken Roey, executive director of facilities, planning and management for the school system, told the group that two factors are key to rising renovation costs: the need for two fire walls separating the Mount Hebron building into three sections and a new central mechanical system.

Mount Hebron was constructed in 1964. Over the years, the county built five additions, the last in 1999. In the past decade, $20 million has been spent on renovations. The result, as with many older buildings, Roey said, is that Mount Hebron has 13 separate mechanical air-handling systems, four electrical systems and three types of lighting.

Replacing them with one central system "would tremendously improve the comfort level within the building," he said.

The renovation option the school system favors would add space for fine arts, athletics and administration, plus an atrium lobby, adding 30,000 square feet.

If the county decided on a replacement building, it would have to be constructed on the current athletic fields while students continue using the old building.

Cousin said he expects to get up to $25 million in construction funds from the state next fiscal year, and $7 million from a dedicated county excise tax. The rest of the capital budget for schools would have to come from the sale of county bonds.

"This is about finding a sustainable revenue source for school projects," he told the group.

"What about a funding-source recommendation?" asked Councilwoman Courtney Watson.

"Talks will have to start," Cousin replied.

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