School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey sounded a dire warning yesterday about Howard County's education budget for the coming fiscal year, suggesting that impending federal and state budget cuts will leave the school system without money to try new programs.
"The specifics are not at hand yet, but the handwriting is on the wall," Dr. Hickey told the county school board. "This will be a very difficult year for local governments, the county and the school system."
Both the federal and state governments have pledged substantial cuts in funding to local governments, and those cuts are sure to have an impact on education, Dr. Hickey said.
He predicted that the fiscal year beginning July 1 could be worse than 1991, when a shortfall of county revenues forced school officials to renegotiate teachers' pay raises and make drastic cuts in such items as textbook purchases.
Dr. Hickey's warning came as the school board approved a construction plan for the next decade under which five new elementary schools and three new middle schools would be built by fall 1999 to meet projected enrollment increases.
The board also laid out a plan to accommodate the rapidly rising high school enrollment, which is projected to increase by 400 students a year through 2008. The plan would:
* Place additions at the seven older high schools to raise their official capacities to 1,332 each. Actual enrollments at each of these schools will be allowed to reach more than 1,500 pupils. The first of those additions -- at Hammond High School -- is already under way and due to be completed by fall 1997.
* Permit the enrollments at the county's three new high schools -- Long Reach, River Hill and Wilde Lake -- to reach 1,600 pupils each without those schools being considered overcrowded. The schools' official capacities would remain at 1,332 each and not be increased to 1,600, but school officials were encouraged to place more students in those three schools.
* Build a new high school in the Fulton area to open in 2002.
In the high-school capacity plan, the board rejected a recommendation from Dr. Hickey that the official capacities of Howard and Mount Hebron high schools be increased to 1,600 each -- a recommendation that would have allowed enrollments at the two schools to soar to more than 1,900 students each and that had drawn strong opposition from parents.
Parents and school board members had worried that the older schools and their smaller hallways would be unable to handle the crush of additional students. During a public hearing last week, many parents -- including representatives from the county PTA Council -- urged the school board to place additional students in the new high schools rather than the old ones.
Although the board directed that the new high schools accept more students, it was careful not to raise the official capacity of any high school to 1,600.
Raising a school's official capacity to 1,600 means its enrollment can exceed 1,900 pupils without the school being considered overcrowded, because a school's actual enrollment may exceed its official capacity by 20 percent.
Despite the limits imposed last night on capacities of the three new high schools, their enrollments still could -- and likely will -- exceed 1,600. For example, Long Reach High currently is projected to have 1,947 students by 2004.
The board also said that it may alter its high school construction plan depending on future enrollment projections.
The board's proposed capital budget will be submitted to the state Interagency Committee on Public School Construction by Monday.
The agency will spend the next several months studying the proposal and then will recommend to the state Board of Public Works how much money should go to each county school system to help pay for school construction, renovations and additions.