The message from the community was resounding: the oldest middle school in Howard County is in dire need of a facelift.
After a public hearing and work session on Sept. 26, the Howard County Board of Education approved a $96.4 million capital budget request for fiscal year 2015 that includes funds for construction at Wilde Lake Middle School. Earlier, nearly two dozen students, teachers, parents and community members spoke in favor of the proposed renovation, delivering at times emotional testimony that the school is not up to the standards of other middle schools.
"Our media center is split off into classrooms. The heating and cooling system is insufficient in the band room, causing our musical instruments to warp. Many classrooms do not have TVs. Our small cafeteria, which doubles as an auditorium has a disproportionately small screen (for assemblies) and a poor sound system," said Alton Hamchen, a Wilde Lake seventh-grader and Student Council president. "It all affects the pride and esteem of the students. We need the facility and upgrades just like any other middle school in Howard County. It's the fair and equitable decision."
Some residents asked the board to accelerate the renovations that would reconfigure the building's interior and add 156 seats of capacity. But Ken Roey, the system's chief facilities operator, said that is not possible because in order to proceed the project must have the state's approval and participation, which is scheduled for fiscal year 2016.
Currently, construction on Wilde Lake is scheduled to begin in April 2015 and be completed in August 2017, according to the budget request. Funds for the renovation started to be set aside in the fiscal 2014 budget, and $10 million is being requested in fiscal 2015 for the project. While the board unanimously approved the $96.4 million request, up from last year's approved $83.5 million, Roey cautioned that one of the renovations included in the budget may be deferred if the state doesn't provide adequate funds.
"One of the renovations is going to have to be moved, likely Swansfield Elementary, Patuxent Valley or Wilde Lake middle schools," he said. "One of these has no chance."
Board Vice-Chairman Brian Meshkin asked if any headway had been made in looking at using private funds for capital projects. Roey said that possibility still was in the early planning stages at the state level, but because of current regulations, a public-private partnership is not possible. None of the developers constructing apartments and town houses in Columbia have indicated they're interested in footing part of the Wilde Lake bill, Roey said, as developers have in the Oxford Square development in Hanover which, when completed, will include two schools.
Residents also were concerned that if students are redistricted out of Wilde Lake — a suggestion by the attendance area committee as part of the upcoming process to open a new middle school in Hanover — renovations wouldn't occur at all. But Roey said "regardless of redistricting, we are moving ahead with Wilde Lake's renovation. We haven't drawn up the superintendent's redistricting recommendation yet, but we don't foresee significant, or any, redistricting at Wilde Lake Middle School."
Roey said staff would ask the board at its Oct. 10 meeting to approve a feasibility study on the school. One of the options the feasibility study would explore, Roey said, is replacing Wilde Lake with an entirely new school.
Regardless, residents said, Wilde Lake is in sore need of construction, and such a project is crucial to the lifeblood of the surrounding village. With construction occurring or planned at the nearby Wilde Lake Village Center and Columbia's Town Center that includes new apartment buildings, the middle school needs the capacity the renovation would provide, said Wilde Lake Village Board Chairwoman Linda Odum.
"Wilde Lake Middle School last experienced renovations in 1998," Odum said. "Well, a lot has changed in the last 15 years. Our village is undergoing a period of rebirth and revitalization and we would love to have Wilde Lake Middle School join us on this journey."
Jerry Krasnick said that his children notice the difference between Wilde Lake and other middle schools and it affects their pride in the school. Low pride translates to low parent involvement, which leads to struggling schools and people moving away from the neighborhood, he said. Ultimately, Krasnick said, not improving Wilde Lake could lead to urban decay, and he presented this analogy:
"After a few years, when your clothes start to show wear, and maybe you've gained some weight, you don't go out in the same clothes anymore," he said. "You go get new clothes that look nice and you get a size that fits you better. I hope you do the same with your schools."