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Top construction projects for Howard schools to be funded, but officials voice concern for future needs

While Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s capital budget touts millions of dollars to fulfill the school system’s top construction project requests for fiscal 2020, school officials are concerned for the future.

“Although [fiscal] 2020 provides the dollars necessary to move Talbott Springs, high school 13 and Hammond High School forward, I can’t look at that alone without looking at 2021 and 2022 because there are additional costs to accrue and those balloon if those dollars aren't there,” schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said during a work session with the school system and the County Council on April 29.

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“I don’t want us to be lulled into the level that everything is fine because then the dollars we requested for the $92 million for this year were predicated on balancing the dollars for the future years,” he added. “What comes home to roost in the out years is a concern for us.”

In September, the county Board of Education adopted a $92.3 million fiscal 2020 capital budget request, a $626.9 million 2021-25 capital improvement program request, and a 10-year master plan for capital improvements or major construction projects of nearly $1.3 billion.

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

Last month, Ball announced his inaugural capital improvement spending plan for fiscal 2020, which begins July 1, including $54.6 million for the school system.

“This proposed capital budget provides funds to renovate aging school buildings, build new schools to fight overcrowding, support crucial renovations, add classrooms and improve technology,” Ball wrote in his letter to Council Chairwoman Christiana Rigby while presenting the budget.

Besides the top three construction projects, Ball’s proposal looks to fund systemic renovations, relocatable classrooms and technology improvements throughout the school system. An additional $2 million is being proposed to allow for Howard schools to acquire land for an elementary school in Turf Valley.

Ball’s $54.6 million proposal includes $48.5 million in county funding and $6.1 million in anticipated state funding.

The topic of school capacity across all grade levels was also discussed during the April 29 work session.

Howard’s 77-school district of nearly 58,000 students and 12,000 full- and part-time staff as of the 2018-19 academic year is projecting an expected enrollment growth of 850 students for the upcoming academic year.

The school board has been addressing high school overcrowding for months to curb overpopulated schools ahead of the county’s 13th high school scheduled opening in 2023. Beginning in the fall, the school board will start the redistricting process and aims to approve a plan by November.

“We have to do redistricting … the hope is that redistricting will provide us some relief,” Martirano said.

High school 14, which is slated to be built between July 2025 and September 2028, was also discussed as it is the new capital project in the budget.

Councilwoman Liz Walsh addressed that there are “zero dollars” in the capital budget for the next three years for high school 14.

However, while the project is still on the table, at this point the likelihood of advancing the construction and opening of high school 14 prior to 2030 is not justified due to current student enrollment projections, according to Renee Kamen, the county school system’s manager of school planning.

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Under the current capital budget, the enrollment needs of a future high school would be less than 1,000 students, so there would not be a 14th high school through 2030 “because the enrollment does not justify it,” Kamen said.

With the construction of high school 13 and the Hammond High addition, there is more of a justified need to focus on school additions and renovations instead of an additional high school, Martirano added.

The County Council and school board did not discuss Ball’s proposed $605.2 million toward the school system’s operating budget. The two entities are tentatively scheduled to meet May 15 to discuss the operating budget.

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