Three months after the fate of two Columbia school construction projects hung by a thread, the school board voted Dec. 17 to officially keep them on track.
For nearly a decade, a renovation at Hammond High School and a new Talbott Springs Elementary — which began as a renovation — have been on the Howard County Public School System’s list to be completed.
The school board voted 6-0 to keep the Hammond High and Talbott Springs Elementary projects, along with the opening of high school 13 in September 2023, on track in the school system’s annual capital budget. Board member Kirsten Coombs was not present for the vote.
Before the vote, the school board, Superintendent Michael Martirano and central office staff discussed the implications of putting the two projects back on the priority list with concern that funding will not be provided for each year of the projects simultaneously. Audience members gave a small round of applause when the vote went through.
“I’m glad we’re still in it, but it feels very hollow,” Carleen Pena, a Hammond High parent and longtime advocate for the construction project, said after the vote. “My question is why did [the school system] put it all forward then if you didn’t have the funding for it?”
Pena has advocated for the Hammond High project for years and in recent months has testified before the school board, County Council, public budget hearings and the state’s Interagency Commission on School Construction, which reviews and approves public school building projects.
She had added a visual facet to her testimonies, an industrial-sized bucket that reads “Big Bad Bucket,” to showcase that some Hammond High science classrooms use buckets as sinks.
“If you don’t vote for us, this is what you’re saying is OK as a sink in a high school,” she said.
Pena said she will believe the Hammond High renovation is a reality when she sees shovels in the ground in May.
Hammond High’s addition, which would provide 200 more seats at the 1,220-seat school — not including portable classrooms — is scheduled to be completed September 2023.
Completion of a new Talbott Springs Elementary school, which began as heating ventilation and air conditioning renovation introduced in June 2011, is scheduled for a 2022 completion.
In September, Martirano lowered the capital budget request for fiscal 2021 from $135.6 million to $56.01 million after learning of anticipated funding from the county would top out at approximately $48 million.
After receiving the anticipated funding numbers, Martirano drastically cut his budget request, eliminating funding for the two Columbia schools.
The school board came back nearly two weeks later and unanimously approved the $56.01 million capital budget request and added back in Talbott Springs Elementary and Hammond High’s projects on the priority list. At that time, it was discussed a final decision would need to be made in December.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball sent a letter to the school board Dec. 17 that said: “I am writing to reiterate the county’s continuing and full support for all three of those projects moving forward, without further delays.
“Those three communities have waited far too long and, given the desperate need for current and future capacity, we need to make them a priority. In order to keep these three projects moving, a joint effort and shared focused commitment from the county, the state and the BOE is required,” Ball wrote.
Ball sent a letter Nov. 27 stating the $50 million to $54 million of anticipated annual capital funding “is more than sufficient” to keep three projects on line for “the foreseeable future.”
However, Martirano wrote otherwise in a Dec. 4 memo to the school board.
“The funding of $50-$54M [million] annually for five years is not enough to support the construction of all three projects simultaneously,” Martirano wrote.
In January, the school system will present new information to the school board regarding Hammond High’s project.