Hammond High School families came out to the Board of Education's public hearing on Tuesday night to show support for expedited renovations to the school's aging facilities.
Hammond High School families came out to the Board of Education's public hearing on Tuesday night to show support for expedited renovations to the school's aging facilities. (Kate Magill/ BSMG)

Clad in maroon Hammond High School apparel, more than 20 students and parents from the Columbia school came out to Tuesday night’s school budget public hearing to support expedited renovations to the middle-aged building.

The public hearing was the school board’s first since Superintendent Michael Martirano proposed a $850.7 million fiscal 2019 operating budget earlier this month.

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Renovation plans for the 41-year-old building, which would include new heating and cooling systems, have been in the school system’s capital improvement plan for years, with an original completion proposed in 2018, but other projects took priority amid rapid population growth in recent years.

Martirano announced hours earlier at a meeting with the County Council and Board of Education that he wants to advance the completion target date from 2028 to 2023. School officials are also proposing to expand Hammond, designed for 1,220 students, to accommodate 200 more.

“Growth has taken priority over renovations, it always does and it always has,” Martirano said at the joint meeting. “By adding capacity to Hammond, it accelerates it in the capital improvement plan because it’s not just a renovation project.”

Health care was the other major topic at the public hearing.

Martirano’s operating budget plan starts to pare a projected $50 million deficit in the school system’s health-care fund.

The deficit reduction could mean raising health costs for employees.

Colleen Morris, president of the Howard County Education Association, and Clemens Crossing Elementary School art teacher Ben Schmitt, who serves on the union’s board, testified against raising insurance premium or copayment rates for teachers.

“I feel forced to pay for mistakes that weren’t my own,” Schmitt said. The health-fund deficit has been drawn down since 2011 when funds were used for other projects.

Board of Education member Kirsten Coombs said after the hearing that it was “potentially” possible the school system would have to raise employees’ health-care costs ito deal with the deficit, but said she didn’t want to see teachers penalized for a problem they didn’t cause.

Martirano said he couldn’t speak about raising costs because union contract negotiations are ongoing. He said officials are “looking at every option,” but that there were “only so many roads” possible to fix the deficit.

“There’s this pain we’re all feeling from sins of the past,” Martirano said after the hearing.

The budget is Martirano’s first since taking over as leader of the 56,000-student school system. Martirano has been candid about making this budget process civil and transparent.

A second public hearing is set for Feb. 13. The school board is scheduled to approve a budget Feb. 22.

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