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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball: Focusing on education now is an investment in future generations | COMMENTARY

Last month, students returned to Howard County school buildings to greet friends and teachers for the first time in nearly 18 months. Throughout this past year, we’ve worked with our school system to prepare school buildings for the return of in-person learning, building infrastructure that would make all our students and educators safe.

A $6 million contribution of CARES Act funding supported the installation of MERV13 HVAC air filters in every school building that didn’t have one previously. Funding also allowed for the distribution of personal protective equipment and shored up IT infrastructure, so students and teachers could still seamlessly connect whether in the classroom or at home.

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We worked closely with the school system and our health department to ensure that staff and eligible students are vaccinated, providing easy access to the COVID-19 vaccine in apartment buildings, neighborhoods, sporting events, concerts and more. We’re prepared to quickly deploy vaccines once approved for younger children.

While the COVID-19 pandemic led to virtual and hybrid learning, it did not interrupt our investment in education in Howard County. If anything, the pandemic underscored how critical it is to ensure our students and educators have the best learning and teaching environment possible.

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School construction and renovation has been a priority of our administration since taking office, with an average of more than $58 million in county funding being provided per year to support school capital efforts. This level of funding is an average annual increase of nearly 25% over the previous four years, allowing the school system to begin construction of its top three priority projects — the Talbott Springs Elementary School replacement (projected to open in September 2022), the new 13th county high school (projected to open in September 2023) and the Hammond High School renovation and addition (projected to open in December 2023). When completed, these critical projects will provide additional capacity for nearly 2,400 students combined by the end of 2023.

We’re also laying the groundwork to continue building new schools and addressing capacity issues well into the future, securing land for a new elementary school in Turf Valley this past July. Despite the need for an elementary school at Turf Valley being identified as far back as 2015, efforts to advance this project languished under prior administrations, with little funding secured and no progress made toward executing an agreement to purchase the property.

Working with our County Council, we successfully negotiated an agreement of sale and allocated $4 million to purchase the property. Now, the county owns the land needed for this important project, allowing the 600-seat future Turf Valley Elementary School to be placed in the superintendent’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan earlier this month.

We identified the location for the county’s 14th high school at Troy Park in Elkridge in 2020. Working with the Board of Education, our collective efforts were able to get this important project reinserted into the school system’s long-range master plan last year.

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To meet the needs of our community, though, building new schools is not enough; we must also maintain our existing schools and ensure there is enough space for students and teachers.

Earlier this month, I advocated to the Interagency Commission on School Construction to expand the scope of the Built to Learn Act to cover systemic renovations that cost less than $4 million. These smaller-scale projects, such as new exterior doors and windows at Guilford Elementary School, or boiler replacement projects at Jeffers Hill, Forest Ridge and Atholton elementary schools, are vital to the maintenance of the schools but would likely be disqualified from state funding.

While these challenges may seem daunting, our collaborative efforts with our school system, the Interagency Commission on School Construction, our state legislature and community stakeholders have yielded tremendous results.

Just this year, we were able to eliminate the school system’s nearly $40 million health fund deficit, which grew from a $1.6 million surplus at the end of fiscal 2015 to a $39.2 million deficit at the end of fiscal 2019. Though funding was previously allocated to address this growing fiscal crisis, a sustainable approach with accountability measures to ensure progress was never established. The result was a waste of county resources, with the health fund deficit growing by $2.2 million in fiscal 2019 despite an $11 million county contribution toward paying down the deficit in the 2019 budget.

In February 2020, we established a collaborative, multiyear plan to address the health fund deficit. This plan tied county contributions to the generation of year-end savings by the school system, creating a sustainable accountability structure to ensure continued progress toward eliminating the deficit. Supported by a $12.5 million county contribution in the current budget, the deficit will be eliminated by the end of fiscal 2022 and ultimately is projected to have a surplus of more than $5 million.

All of our efforts have the same end goal: to invest in our next generation now. For fiscal 2022, we contributed $628.3 million to the school system, $8 million above the state-mandated maintenance of effort funding level and marking the largest increase over maintenance of effort in seven years.

In fiscal 2022, we also fully funded special education and instruction requests, critical components for our students who have been especially challenged by virtual and hybrid learning. Over the past three fiscal years, we’ve increased special education funding by a total of $28.1 million, nearly $10 million more than the increase in special education funding over the previous four years combined.

For many parents, students and teachers, these past 18 months have been especially grueling, and now it is more important than ever to keep investing in our educational systems. We work tirelessly to find solutions to support our students, parents and educators, and we’ll continue to work toward a community where all our children have the resources and support needed to thrive.

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The writer is the Howard County executive.

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