On Thursday the Howard County Board of Education voted to give higher priority to renovations and additions at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools, fund an addition at Thomas Viaduct Middle School and add construction of high school 14 to the end of its long-range master plan through 2033.
The move shook up Superintendent Michael Martirano’s proposed capital budget and the priority list of projects that must be submitted to the state by Tuesday.
“We’ve been able to do multiple projects at once because we got funding from the county,” said board member Christina Delmont-Small. “I believe that all projects deserve to have us advocate for them so that they don’t keep getting pushed out.”
Silence filled the room after Delmont-Small’s motion to replace the superintendent’s plan was approved, 4-3. Board Chair Vicky Cutroneo and board members Yun Lu and Jolene Mosley joining Delmont-Small voting in the affirmative. Board members Jennifer Mallo, Antonia Watts, and Chao Wu voted against.
Martirano requested a five-minute recess after the vote to talk with school planning staff.
“With the amount of months that went into this development, I wanted a little bit of time to think about the reaction, the cause and effect that this would have,” Martirano said.
The long-range master plan is a 10-year extension of the school system’s capital budget, meant to indicate the board’s priorities for construction projects for fiscal years 2024-2033. Since the school board only approved priority order for projects, the Howard County Public School System’s planning staff must now go back and revise the capital budget to determine how to best use funding from the county and state to “feather the projects out,” according to Daniel Lubeley, the school system’s director of capital planning and construction.
Martirano’s fiscal 2024 capital budget totaled $76 million for fiscal 2024, while projects in the long-range plan totaled more than $920 million.
Oakland Mills and Centennial Renovations and Additions
As part of the new long-range plan, the school board moved up renovations and additions at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools to fourth and sixth, respectively, on the priority list.
Martirano’s proposal would have delayed funding for Oakland Mills from fiscal 2026 to 2033 and Centennial from 2028 to 2029.
“Oakland Mills and Centennial high school[s] keep going on and off and on and off and on and off,” Delmont-Small said Thursday. “This is ridiculous. … It’s important for us to continue to support the schools that have waited so long, in order to get what they need for their community and figure out how to do all of this by continuing to keep the pressure on both the county and the state.”
At a public hearing for the proposed capital budget on Sept. 22, dozens of Oakland Mills students, parents and community members urged the board to take action to address a range of facilities issues, from leaky ceilings to mold in classrooms.
“Our school has some rooms that are very hot and humid and others that are freezing,” freshman Clare Birney testified. “Even without asthma, I have difficulty breathing.”
The last major renovation to Oakland Mills was in 2005 and the building has not had a full HVAC replacement since it opened in 1973.
“I think our community and other communities showed up [to the hearing] and we got to do what the community needs,” Mosley said. “The health and wellness of our students is super important to me.”
Elementary School 43
In a separate motion from the priority list changes, the board voted 7-0 to move the location of the county’s proposed 43rd elementary school from Mission Road in the southeast to Turf Valley in the northwest. Turf Valley had previously been designated as home to the 44th elementary school.
“We need the capacity in the northern part of the county, there’s nothing else coming down the pike for the north and we need relief,” said Cutroneo, who made the motion.
With development of the Turf Valley Resort and large-scale housing projects, student enrollment in northwestern Howard County has grown steadily in recent years. Manor Woods, Waverly and West Friendship elementary schools are estimated at 100% capacity combined, while St. John’s Lane Elementary school is estimated to be at 122% capacity by 2031.
In July 2021, the county formally acquired the Turf Valley elementary school site for $5.75 million. Plans show the new school would open with 600 seats including potential space for early childhood and special education.
While elementary school 43 is still listed as fifth on the school board’s priority list, the Oakland Mills High School renovation and addition’s move to fourth place may impact construction start times, given the higher cost of high school projects.
Construction for a new elementary school takes about three years from design to occupancy, according to Lubeley.
“Getting this school built has been a top priority for us and we are thrilled that it is finally nearing construction,” County Council member David Yungmann wrote in an email Friday, reacting to the decision. Yungmann represents District 5 which covers much of western Howard County.
“We appreciate the many parents who have advocated for it and are thrilled for the families it will serve,” he said.
High School 14
In one of its last actions of the night, the board voted 6-0-1 to add construction of the county’s 14th high school to the end of its long-range master plan. Delmont-Small abstained. The high school had been included in the long-range plan last year but was dropped from the superintendent’s proposal this year.
“Without state support, at the current level of county funding, it would not be possible to build high school 14 without a significant funding increase from the county to support this project,” Martirano explained during a presentation Sept. 8.
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Elkridge residents have long advocated for their own high school and in October 2020 the county announced the 14th high school would be built on land it acquired at Troy Park.
Construction of a new high school, from planning to occupancy, typically takes more than five years. Adding high school 14 to the end of the 10-year plan would put funding for the project at least a decade out.
“Adding [high school 14] into the long-range master plan at the end, it is not an immediate funding condition for FY24,” Lubeley said. “It’s a way for the board to identify a board priority, but it does not have an immediate fiscal impact.”
Next steps for the capital budget
HCPSS staff must now go back and reorganize the school system’s fiscal 2024 capital budget based on priorities approved by the board. The board must then submit a capital budget request, including a priority list of projects, to the state by Oct. 4 to determine eligibility for state funding.
“I am thrilled that our Board of Education has heard the voices of our Oakland Mills and Elkridge communities and has re-established the Oakland Mills High School renovation and addition project as a top priority and re-inserted Elkridge’s high school 14 project into the Long-Range Master Plan. It is a testament to our shared advocacy,” County Executive Calvin Ball wrote in an email Friday, reacting to the board’s decisions. Ball is a Democrat who is running for reelection this fall.
Cutroneo said Friday that she struggled with her vote on approving the long-range master plan, but that it’s important for the board to ask for and prioritize what is needed, not just what the county can afford. Still, she’s worried the strategy “will give false hope to school communities.”
“The county capital funding levels for the next 10 years will not come close to supporting what is actually needed by the school system, and our projects will continue to be deferred,” she said. “Ultimately I voted to approve, realizing that this was likely the best chance for consensus and to move the system forward.”