As a student at Hammond High School in Columbia, Ama Stott feels her school “isn’t equal to other schools in Howard County.”
For one, she said, the building is practically windowless, with windows only in the ninth-grade wing and the cafeteria.
“If you’re in the middle of the building and it’s raining, you have no idea until you get to the cafeteria,” the 16-year-old junior said. “If the school is going to close in the middle of [the] day for snow, we don’t even know. We have to text people to find out.”
For nearly a decade, Hammond High has been on the Howard County Public School System’s list to receive a renovation and an addition. The project, however, has been repeatedly delayed.
Last month, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano proposed delaying the project again, with a completion date of September 2026 instead of September 2023. The original completion date was August 2018.
While proposing to push back the project completion date at Hammond High, Martirano also suggested delaying construction of a new Talbott Springs Elementary School, also in Columbia. Completion of that work would be pushed back five years, from 2022 to 2027.
The projects had been listed as two of the three top priorities for the school system’s fiscal 2021 capital budget request. The final project, which is still on track, is the opening in Jessup of the county’s 13th high school in September 2023.
In September, Martirano lowered the capital budget request for fiscal 2021 from $135.6 million to $56.01 million because of “anticipated county funding levels.”
In September, Holly Sun, the county’s budget administrator, anticipated funding will be between $41 million and $48 million for the school system.
Ten days after Martirano’s presentation, however, the school board voted to put Hammond High and Talbott Springs back into the request. Martirano expressed his support for putting the projects back in, but stressed that a decision will need to be made by December.
Construction at Hammond High is scheduled to begin in June 2020 and, once started, projects have to stay on track, requiring local funds to be secured in order to receive state funding, Martirano and the school system have said.
Between the school board approving construction designs, to choosing construction bids, the process takes about six months prior to a groundbreaking, which brings the school board to December for Hammond.
“We cannot enter into a contract without the funding,” said Scott Washington, the school system’s acting chief operating officer and former director of capital planning and construction.
“If we don’t have the green light ... it makes the project more costly and more complicated.”
Talbott Springs is scheduled for construction in October 2020, with its design development report scheduled to be presented to the school board Nov. 7.
On Friday, the school board sent a $99.1 million capital budget request for fiscal 2021 and the capital improvement program for fiscal 2022-26 to the state’s Interagency Commission on School Construction.
The school system expects to receive around $10 million from the state, according to a schools spokesman.
In December, the commission is to provide all state school systems with a clear funding report, according to Bob Gorrell, the state commission’s executive director.
With each project, the state tallies up the construction costs and deems what is eligible for state support. For Howard, the state funds 53% of construction costs, leaving the rest to the county. Ineligible costs include design, furniture and equipment, Gorrell said.
The commission doesn’t get involved with the local decisions of determining what projects are the most important, Gorrell said.
School systems provide the commission with applications of projects in the order “of what they want funded first,” he said.
The commission grants its final approval in May 2020. The school board will adopt the final capital budget that same month.
Sun said in a statement last week, “Between now and spring, all stakeholders will continue to work together and look at different options with a goal to keep the three projects moving on schedule.”
At a special education town hall forum on Monday night, Martirano addressed the two projects.
“I will be very transparent with you ... that the funding needed to advance Hammond High and Talbott Springs ... does not exist right now,” he said.
Hammond has ‘felt forgotten’
Hammond High’s motto is “Where People are Important.”
Some Hammond parents and students, however, say they feel abandoned and betrayed.
“To say we’ve felt forgotten by the school system is an understatement,” said Carleen Pena, a Hammond parent and longtime advocate for the construction project. “The whole county wants to talk about equity ... and the fact that we have a school being left like this ... why is one of the poorest schools being treated this way?”
Pena referred to the school’s participation in the Free and Reduced Meals program, which had 36.1% of students enrolled in 2018, according to the school profile.
In June 2010, Hammond was first introduced as a renovation project only, to be included in the school system’s fiscal 2011 capital budget, according to Washington, the school system’s acting chief operating officer.
It was scheduled to be completed in August 2018.
“For priority [of other projects], it was pushed back,” Washington said.
Plans for an addition were added over the years to address the school system’s ever-growing capacity needs.
Hammond High’s total enrollment for September 2018 was 1,360 students, according to the most recent school data. The school can house 1,220 students and offsets the overflow with four portable classrooms.
All renovation projects now have additions attached to them to address capacity needs, said Dan Lubeley, acting director of capital planning and construction and the former manager of design and pre-construction services for the school system.
Located on Guilford Road, Hammond High opened in 1976. It has had two additions, in 1996 and 2011, and had a series of renovations in 1998, 2004, 2008 and 2012, according to the project’s design report. The school has never been fully renovated.
Kristina McKirahan, a junior at Hammond, said, “We are not a priority. It just feels like a betrayal.”
McKirahan, 16, is involved in Hammond’s theater program and a member of the theater honor society. She spends hours in the school’s auditorium.
The auditorium has uncomfortable wooden seats and is not properly ventilated, she said. During performances, the fan has to be turned off or it would overpower the students’ voices, which causes the stage to become very hot under the lights and in costumes, she added.
The new renovation would update the HVAC system in the auditorium, add storage backstage and allow access to the stage for those with disabilities. The upgrades and addition also would add a second floor to the school, creating 200 seats to bring the building’s capacity to 1,420 students.
Changes include a new outdoor dining area, an arts plaza, a new music corridor, weight training and wrestling rooms and a new outdoor practice athletic field.
Due to fewer athletic fields than other schools and only one gym, student-athletes lose approximately two weeks of practice each season because they only practice for 90 minutes instead of two hours like other schools, Pena said.
Pena’s daughter is a cheerleader, and she said the first time the cheerleaders see a full-sized mat is one hour before a competition.
As a varsity lacrosse player, Stott said she deals with the inadequate practice fields. At times she has to practice in the school hallways instead of outside.
Pena was on the planning advisory committee to help work out Hammond High’s design. Necessary changes include expanding the physical size of the special education department, making bathrooms and entrances meet Americans With Disabilities Act standards.
“No school should be without the space needed to run the programs,” Martirano said Monday night during the special education town hall forum. “Hammond High, from my understanding, has the space. Is it the optimal space? That’s left to subjective review.”
Hammond is the only high school without outdoor bathrooms for sporting events, making it impossible for events to be secured safely as attendees have to exit the stadium to use the bathrooms at the back of the school and then are allowed to go back into the game, Pena said.
Totaling $115 million, “this will be our most expensive renovation and addition if it goes through,” Washington said. So far, $16.5 million has been allotted for Hammond.
While McKirahan expects the project “to be pushed off again, I’m hoping that by the time I go to college I inspire others to continue the fight.”
Stott remains hopeful “something will happen,” but also said she has had teachers who have been promised change for the past nine to 10 years.
For Pena, “If it doesn’t happen now, I don’t think it ever will.”
‘Such a roller coaster’
Jonathan Edelson, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board, is “at the point where a replacement school is going to happen when I see the hole in the ground and the cinder blocks going up.
“I hate to pessimistic and cynical like that, but it’s been such a roller coaster,” he said.
What began as a heating ventilation and air conditioning renovation introduced in June 2011, part of the fiscal 2012 capital budget, turned into an entire replacement school for Talbott Springs.
In June 2016, for the fiscal 2017 capital budget, the project was moved up to a systemic renovation, which would have been completed in 2018.
The school system went back and forth with the state commission for months to receive approval for a replacement building, reaching an agreement last October.
Alex Reid, the education committee liaison for the Talbott Springs Parent Teacher Association, said the replacement project “is long overdue.”
“As a community member, a parent, a taxpayer, I feel betrayed by Dr. Martirano,” Reid said. “That priority list is useless. It was really just a sham.”
Reid has two children; his son has moved on from Talbott Springs to Oakland Mills Middle, while his daughter is still there.
He said “mold has run rampant in the school,” with both his children having respiratory issues and illnesses and knowing of teachers who have been relocated within the school for health reasons.
Edelson describes the elementary school as “literally bursting at the seams,” with the aging building detracting from the students’ overall experience.
A new two-story building would have 587 seats, increasing from the current 377 seats. The school is overcrowded, with 504 students enrolled in September 2018, and has 10 portable classrooms.
Talbott Springs opened in 1973 as a one-story building. The school has had two additions, in 2000 and 2008, and a minor renovation in 2013.
In the schematic design report, the replacement school will have a new bus loop, stormwater management, and a four-pipe chilled water and heating system. The first floor will house pre-kindergarten through first grade and the second floor will be for second through fifth grade.
The current construction cost is $32.2 million, of which about $17.5 million has been allotted.
Reid wasn’t surprised when the project was proposed to be delayed again.
“I’m not optimistic Talbott Springs will get funded. I’m not optimistic that in 2024-2025 it won’t get pushed [to] 2032,” he said. “There is no reason to believe anything would be different in 2026.”
Edelson’s children don’t attend Talbott Springs, but he has been fighting for the project regardless.
“The people I know who have been fighting for this the longest and hardest, I don’t know if any one of them will benefit from it,” he said. “They are fighting for the next group of kids to get through there.”