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Howard school construction projects face delays because of county funding shortfall

Construction of a new Talbott Springs Elementary School and an addition to Hammond High School will be delayed by at least three years in the most recent Howard County school system’s capital budget, it was announced at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Howard Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said he lowered the capital budget request for fiscal 2021 from $135.6 million to $56.01 million because of “anticipated county funding levels," after meeting with Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

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“My proposal reflects the conversation with the county and what the school system will receive,” Martirano said.

The $135.6 million projection was based on the school system’s long-range master plan.

Budgeted projects for the upcoming fiscal year being maintained are new construction of the 13th county high school in Jessup, slated to open in September 2023, and a new boiler at Hammond Middle School.

Last year, the county funded $54.6 million of the school system’s $92.3 million capital budget request, a shortfall of about $37.7 million.

County government anticipates funding between $41 million to $48 million of the school system’s $56.01 million budget request this year, said Holly Sun, the county’s budget administrator. The remaining dollars will come from the state, which is expected to be around $10 million, according to a schools spokesman.

This “preliminary projection is in line with [the county’s] historical trends, based on existing revenue structure and based on the debt capacity," Sun said.

“While people would want 100% [of the capital funding] to go to the school system, in reality you cannot have that."

Over the past five years, from both county and state funding, the school system has received between $54 million and $67 million for its annual capital budget, Sun said.

On April 1, 2020, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball is expected to release his capital budget for fiscal 2021.

The 587-seat replacement building for Talbott Springs Elementary, which was slated to open in September 2022, is now being pushed out to September 2027.

Talbott Springs Elementary opened in 1973 as a one-story building. The school has had two additions, made in 2000 and 2008, and a minor renovation in 2013.

Councilman Opel Jones, whose district covers Talbott Springs Elementary, is urging the school board to keep the replacement project a top priority.

“Dr. Michael Martirano’s proposal to defer funding for Talbott Springs Elementary School [TSES] is shocking, appalling, and disheartening,” Jones wrote in a letter to the school board Tuesday.

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“The deferred funding has been a ‘yo-yo’ approach for renovations and additions to this undervalued school. This is outrageous and completely offensive to the families that send our future leaders to this school,” Jones wrote.

In May, the county school board approved design plans for a two-story 86,805-square-foot replacement building. Plans included an outdoor classroom, an outdoor garden, an early childhood playground, 110 parking spaces for cars and 10 for buses.

Jones is asking for the school board to approve the $135.6 million capital budget request that keeps Talbott Springs a top priority. The school board is expected to vote on Martirano’s proposal Sept. 19.

“Our students who attend our fantastic public-school system should not be forced to wait six to eight years for necessary modifications for the advancement of their academia,” Jones said.

Hammond High’s addition, which would add 200 seats to the 1,220 seat school — not including portable classrooms — is now expected to be completed in September 2026 instead of September 2023.

Community members wearing Talbott Springs Elementary and Hammond High T-shirts were in the audience during Tuesday’s meeting.

Vicky Cutroneo, a school board member, received rounds of applause from the audience when she expressed her resistance to taking the Talbott Springs Elementary replacement and Hammond High addition projects off the table.

“These schools can’t wait," Cutroneo said. “This speaks to equity in my mind.”

Martirano said he agreed with her.

“These are painful decisions,” he said. "I’m having a hard time having a discussion about removing any of these projects, but the bottom line is we have a dollar amount that has been communicated to the board.”

Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, the remaining six school board members all said they did not want to push the timelines for the two projects further out.

Sarah Mugo, the representative for Talbott Springs Elementary PTA, was hopeful after hearing all the school board members do not want to take any of the priority projects off the table, including Talbott Springs.

Even if Talbott Springs is moved out a few years, to 2023, instead of what is being proposed now that will be better, Mugo said. However, she said that the community is not going to stop fighting for the new building.

“This is an issue of equity and we feel left out, like second class citizens … yet we pay our taxes,” Mugo said. “Our kids are not getting what they need.”

High school 13 will have 1,650 seats. The project is set to have a $130.7 million budget, that will be spent to build a 287,005-square-foot high school with 579 parking spaces and 34 school bus parking spaces, according to a report previously presented to the school board.

“This project is required because the combined capacity of all [12] high schools will exceed 110% utilization by 2022,” Martirano said.

Also being deferred in the capital budget is the opening of Howard’s 43rd elementary school, from September 2024 to September 2028; and the Dunloggin Middle School renovation and addition, from September 2024 to September 2030.

Other areas proposed to be funded in the fiscal 2021 capital budget include roofing projects at Harpers Choice Middle and Pointers Run Elementary, portable classrooms, playground equipment, expanding school parking lots and site acquisition fees for future schools.

At an April work session between the County Council and the school board regarding the current fiscal year, Martirano voiced his concerns for the future.

“We have a pretty articulated 10-year plan, but every year it changes based upon the fiscal realities of our county,” Martirano said in April. “I feel confident that we are moving in the right direction, but, also, this is not going to yield results right away.”

The school board will hold a public hearing and a work session Sept. 19 on the proposed $56.01 million capital budget, the $399.5 million capital improvement program for 2022-26, and the $775.2 million long-range master plan for 2021-2030. The latter two plan out the school system’s major construction projects on a five-year and 10-year scale.

Future projects in the capital improvement program and the long-range master plan are also being delayed, including the opening of a 14th high school, the 44th and 45th elementary schools, and renovation and addition projects at Oakland Mills Middle School, Centennial High School and Patapsco Middle School.

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High school 14 was expected to open in September 2032 but no longer has a timeline. Elementary school 45 and the Centennial High School and Patapsco Middle School renovation and addition projects also no longer have an end year.

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