Repair or build anew?

Council weighs array of expensive school options

April 27, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

A Howard County Council member whose public career began as an advocate for new schools to reduce classroom crowding is now trying to galvanize support among the county's new leaders to find revenues to pay for increasingly expensive renovations at older schools.

"All of us together, we need to do more," Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson urged four fellow council members as they met with the seven county school board members to discuss the still-unsettled issue of improvements at Mount Hebron High School. She was to meet with County Executive Ken Ulman to discuss the situation, she said.

The school board is awaiting results of a study of four older high schools - Mount Hebron, Atholton, Hammond and Centennial - before deciding whether to recommend a $50 million renovation at Mount Hebron or a new building that could cost up to $90 million. Once a decision on Mount Hebron is reached, renovations at other schools will follow, officials said.

At the quarterly meeting of the council and the board, school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told both groups that, with inflation, next year's capital budget request for schools is likely to be about $130 million, an amount Cousin declared is "unaffordable without a sustainable source of funding outside [county] bonds." This year, the board requested $100 million, but the study of Mount Hebron led Ulman to remove $18.9 million from that project, delaying it for a year.

Watson pointed out that early estimates for a total county capital budget for fiscal 2009 are likely to be $100 million higher than the $354 million Ulman is seeking for fiscal 2008.

Cousin said he has spoken informally with Ulman about the need for more revenue for school renovations, but no solution has been reached.

"I'm encouraging everyone to look at this problem and make it a priority," Watson said during the meeting. She urged the school board to "get active in educating the public. You've got to help the county executive make the case to the public. You are the advocates for education."

Watson served on the school board for four years before being elected to the council in November. But before winning any public office, she spent years helping to organize support to get the county government to build more schools to cut chronic overcrowding. Those efforts helped produce two new elementary schools in Ellicott City and the new Marriotts Ridge High School, and reduced the list of crowded schools from double digits to one.

School board member Ellen Flynn Giles pointed out that former County Executive James N. Robey tried to increase revenue by boosting the real estate transfer tax, but he could not get the county's General Assembly delegation to approve it.

"All we could get was the excise tax [on new homes]," she said. That money is now spent, and now it will be even harder to get approval for any new revenues since the excise tax is still in place and "because the action taken two years ago was short-sighted."

After the session, Watson said she feels a real urgency.

"There's a freight train headed toward us, and we've got to get our head out of the sand" on financing, she said.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said he agrees "there is a sense of urgency with regard to our funding sources," but said he is waiting to see what the study of older high schools shows. The results are due late next month and are scheduled for presentation to the school board June 28.

Mount Hebron was built in 1964 as a junior high school and has had five additions, the last in 1999. The county spent $20 million on renovations in the past decade, and school officials said they plan a $25,000 wastewater pipe repair over the summer to cut the risk of sewage leaks in the building. There was a leak last week, but it was caused by feminine hygiene products flushed down a toilet that blocked the line.

Cindy Ardinger, a Mount Hebron parent who is heading the PTSA's efforts to have the building renovated or replaced, endorsed Watson's view.

"It's a problem that's not going away. We're looking for elected officials to show foresight," she said, adding that the school's parents consider the $50 million renovation option "a minimum number. It will exceed $50 million. Mount Hebron's needs are immediate."

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