Schools capital budget gets OK

Board is uncertain how much will gain funding approval

October 03, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Howard County Board of Education members passed a record $118 million capital budget this week knowing that it will not likely receive full state and local funding.

In the coming months, board members will closely monitor the decisions made on the state and county levels that will determine how much of the budget is funded.

County Executive Ken Ulman is expected to decide in April how much he will include for school projects in the county's capital budget, which the County Council will then vote on. The board will find out about state funding in early May.

Last school year, the system received 80 percent of the money it requested for the capital budget, said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "It will come down to making choices," Cousin said.

How much money the school system gets for capital projects will determine which projects are undertaken.

"We'll have some hard decisions to make," said Diane Mikulis, the board chairman. "We have to live within the amounts of money that we are given."

The budget includes $27 million to partially fund a renovation project at Mount Hebron High School; $20 million for systemic renovations at three buildings; $13.75 million to add to and renovate the old Cedar Lane School; $12 million to construct a maintenance-warehouse facility; and $6.28 million to add a cafetorium at Elkridge Elementary School.

Mikulis said that no projects - except ones where construction has begun - are safe from being deferred.

Board members discussed project priorities before approving the budget Monday night.

A renovation project at Mount Hebron High School generated a lengthy discussion.

The board's vote Monday night essentially determined the scope of the renovation that the school will receive. Details of the plan will be determined in through input of a planning committee and top system officials. The plan will then come to the board for approval.

The board endorsed funding to support a two-year, $50-million construction plan that would likely result in mechanical upgrades, full systemic renovations and an expansion of the school's art, athletic and administrative offices. The work also could include two annexes, for classrooms and athletics.

Several board members, including Sandra H. French, said they could not justify building a new school.

"Even if we wanted to, it's not realistic," French said. "This is not the year to ask for a great deal of money. ... I cannot justify a brand-new school. The taxpayers won't accept us choosing this avenue knowing that we have three other schools [Atholton, Centennial and Hammond] and Glenelg asking for a new school."

After the meeting, Cindy Ardinger, head of the Help Mount Hebron Committee, voiced concerns about the board's plans for the school.

She said she was concerned by a statement by Ken Roey, the school system's executive director of facilities and management, that the renovation plan endorsed by the board would not likely bring the school up to the education specifications used in newer school construction plans.

"Are we creating a two-tiered education system in Howard County?" Ardinger asked after the meeting. "Howard County residents will find this unacceptable because we are paying the same tax dollars."

Ardinger also questioned why the scope of the project has not been determined.

"The school board placed the county executive in a very difficult position," she said. "He is going to have to fund [this project] with no details."

The construction of a maintenance-warehouse facility - a project that has been deferred for 25 years - also resulted in a considerable amount of discussion.

"You can defer until you reach a point when you need to take some action," Roey said.

"I think that we need to keep this on the radar," said Frank Aquino, the board's vice chairman.

The system has maintenance operations at the former Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High School in Columbia, which he said is not an appropriate site.

"The Tubman building deserves to be used for another use," he said.

Board members plan to meet with Ulman to identify a recurring funding source of funding for capital needs. In the past, the school system had used 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, the excise tax has expired.

"That will be the biggest thing we will be looking to do," Mikulis said last week.

The meeting will be the second between Ulman and the current board about this issue, she said.

"We want to see what we can do, and what makes the most sense given the long-term needs of our schools," Mikulis said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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