Howard fights for state funds for new Columbia elementary school

The Howard County school system is appealing a state decision not to provide funds to build a new Talbott Springs Elementary School and instead recommend a renovation of the 45-year-old Columbia building.

“Talbott Springs Elementary School serves one of the county’s most disadvantaged communities. It provides many resources outside the routine school functions such as collecting food and clothing and providing space for professional community liaisons and/or social workers,” Bruce Gist, the school system’s director of construction, wrote in a letter to the state Interagency Committee on School Construction, or IAC, which allocates state dollars for county projects.

“A new, larger building would allow the school the flexibility to provide the spaces needed to deliver educational programs as well as the many additional services and resources needed to support the community,” Gist wrote.

The county school board late last year approved a capital improvement plan for fiscal 2019 that included funding for a total replacement of Talbott Springs. As proposed, the project would have demolished the 1973 building and replaced it with a $41.6 million facility.

Because it required state money, the project had to be approved by the IAC.

Members of that committee did a walk-through of Talbott Springs and then, in December, sent a letter informing the county that the on-site visit, plus a feasibility study for the project, did not present compelling evidence that demolition was a better choice than renovation.

The replacement option is more expensive, the IAC noted, and proceeds on a similar construction timetable to the renovation. Tweaking the renovation plan could “significantly address the limitations” of the current building, the committee said.

“The building is in good condition, has solid finish materials, and presents some unique architectural features, such as high ceilings in some of the classrooms,” the letter says. “The Designees maintain that the local decision to build a replacement school is not justified, and consequently do not recommend the local planning approval and future funding of the project as a replacement facility.”

The school system refuted those claims in its February appeal of the decision, acknowledging that the replacement option is more expensive but would result in lower overall operating costs and pointing out that the timetable for the replacement option allows the school’s teachers and 478 students to stay in the school during construction.

“Building occupancy would be approximately 6-8 months sooner” in a replacement building than a renovated one, the appeal letter says.

Parents and educators in Columbia were stunned by the state’s decision and have been reaching out to state and county lawmakers. Many did not learn of the IAC decision until renovation funds were included in the county’s proposal capital construction budget.

Liz Stover, a fourth-grade teacher at Talbott Springs, described the deteriorating conditions at the school in a letter to state legislators, saying that the school “is falling apart.”

“In the last two years alone, we have seen numerous mold issues, busted water pipes and just this February, the heat system pumped 120-degree air into our cafeteria for a day while the kindergarten pod saw 90-degree air,” she wrote. “Last week we had issues with the doors not locking properly. And to top it off, the school regularly has ants and mice.”

The school system is awaiting a reply to its appeal, according to spokesman Brian Bassett.

“We will continue to advocate to the state for the replacement of Talbott Springs Elementary School. However, in the meantime, we will work with the school principal and the entire school community to design and plan a renovation/addition to the existing facility that meets the needs of the current and future students, staff, and the community of the Oakland Mills Community,” Bassett said.

County Executive Alan Kittleman’s capital budget proposal allocates $2.6 million for the renovation, according to county documents. If the state’s decision remains final, the school system will make the best of the situation, Bassett said.

“Through a renovation, we can say with certainty that students, staff, and community will experience a facility that is state of the art, with programmatic and systemic updates throughout, including larger classroom spaces, improved circulation and new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems as well as new communication and life safety systems,” he said.

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