Schools seek $37.7 million capital budget 2 planned elementaries would be eliminated, other projects delayed; 'Financial constraints'; Enrollment growth expected to fall short of forecast


Howard County schools released yesterday a $37.7 million capital budget proposal for the next fiscal year that would eliminate two planned elementary schools and three school additions, and delay several other projects.

The proposed budget is a product of the county government's desire to limit school construction and the school system's reduced estimates of enrollment growth, said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

"We're aware of the financial constraints of the county, and we think this will be adequate for us to ensure the education quality of our programs," Dr. Hickey said. "What we're trying to do is get over the hump of enrollment growth without overbuilding for when the decline comes."

The 37,500-student school system -- expected to grow by 37.5 percent, or 14,000 pupils, in the next decade -- now is projected to increase by 29 percent, or 10,500 students, by 2006, said Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent for planning and support services.

The revised long-term school population prediction follows two years of less-than-projected enrollment increases, Dr. Kalin said. School officials say they cannot explain why, but they believe the trend will continue and have reduced their future construction budgets to reflect lower long-term enrollment projections.

The revised 10-year, $250 million construction budget will be presented to the county school board tomorrow night. It includes:

* Eliminating two planned elementary schools. One had been set to open in southeastern Howard in 1999 and the other in western Howard in 2001.

* Eliminating planned additions to Guilford Elementary School and Atholton and Glenelg high schools. The Glenelg addition was dropped because of inadequate septic facilities, and additions to Guilford and Atholton were eliminated because of reduced enrollment projections.

* Delaying the addition to Centennial High School from 1998 to 2000 and the addition to Howard High School from 1998 to 2003.

* Postponing the opening of a new high school in the southeastern county from 2000 to 2002.

* Renovating Ellicott Mills Middle School by 2001 instead of replacing the school. The school's students will be bused for two years, 1999 and 2000, to a planned new northeastern middle school.

* Building a second new middle school for western Howard to open in 2003.

* Carrying out major renovations next summer at Guilford, Jeffers Hill and Swansfield elementary schools; Dunloggin, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake middle schools; and the Gateway School.

School officials also say they will recommend that official capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron high schools be increased to 1,600 students to accommodate enrollment growth in the Ellicott City area. That would help eliminate the need for a second new high school, for which the school system has "less than a zero" chance of receiving funds from the county, Dr. Hickey said.

Such changes are sure to please county officials, who have said they do not believe Howard could afford the school system's earlier, more extensive construction plans.

But some parents in the Howard High district are protesting the proposed increase in the school's official capacity.

Last year, County Executive Charles I. Ecker trimmed about $6 million from the capital budget request and forced the school board to reduce the size of every planned elementary and middle school by an average of about 12 percent.

To further reduce construction costs, the school system will begin using portable classrooms as a more permanent solution to crowding, said Sidney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations.

Roofs and hallways will be built around the existing portable classrooms at Bollman Bridge and Northfield elementary schools and at Mayfield Woods and Patuxent Valley middle schools to "integrate" the portable classrooms into their schools, Dr. Cousin said.

The school system's revised enrollment projections indicate that the county's elementary school population will peak in 2001. By 2006, there would be 2,201 elementary classroom openings, allowing space for the system to begin offering pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs.

"Even in some of the much less financially fortunate systems, they have pre-kindergarten programs," Dr. Hickey said, noting that most parents in the county enroll their children in private programs. "They are shown to have significant benefits."

The school board is to hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5, discuss it in a public work session Oct. 10 and vote on it Oct. 12. The budget requires approval from Mr. Ecker and the County Council.

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