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Timetable of schools is called too costly County can't afford 12 buildings in 6 years, officials say


Anne Arundel County cannot afford to replace and renovate dilapidated schools at the pace the school board says is needed, county budget officials contend.

The board wants to renovate and replace a dozen schools during the next six years, at a cost of more than $100 million. County officials haven't finished their budget projections, but say they are sure that's too much.

"Our checkbook is limited," said county budget analyst Ray Elwell. "Certainly we are not going to be able to do it on the board's schedule."

County budget officials say they probably can accommodate most of what the school board is proposing for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

But it's the later years they're worried about, especially 1998.

That is when the board would like to work on renovating and replacing seven schools at a cost of $33 million. The county's bond capacity is estimated at $44 million for that year, meaning school projects would take up the lion's share of it.

"If the only business we were in was building schools, that might be OK, but we need all kinds of buildings," Mr. Elwell said.

The board's 1998 list includes $5.9 million to renovate Adams Park Elementary, $5.7 million toward building a new Ridgeway Elementary and $5.8 million toward replacing Jacobsville Elementary. The board also wants the county to spend $4.8 million on a renovation of and an addition to Jones Elementary and close to $10 million toward the renovation of Belvedere Elementary during 1998 and 1999.

In addition, the long-planned renovation of Brooklyn Park Middle School is expected to cost the county $24 million between 1998 and 2000.

"Some things are going to fall off the list," said Gregory V. Nourse, the school system's fiscal officer and a former budget analyst for the county. "You keep stretching [the later projects in later years] until you make it fit."

In recent years, the school system has lapsed from a timetable that would have it renovating schools when they are 40 years old to renovating them at nearly twice that age. Nine of the approximately 120 schools in use are more than 40 years old and unrenovated.

School officials say they need to rebuild about three schools a year. After 40 years, a school teeters on obsolescence, said Ralph A. Luther, director of facilities management.

"I think these are projects which are needed," school board President Joseph H. Foster said of the board's proposed long-range building plan.

"We can't just ignore the fact that we have buildings that are very old, and when they wear out, they wear out."

The list the school board proposed is hardly comprehensive, board members say.

"You have a sheer needs situation," said school board member Thomas Florestano. "Some of these buildings are in a horrible state."

Renovations are paid for mostly from county revenues, an increasing problem in lean budget times, county budget officials say.

The state pays toward additions and new buildings that provide needed capacity for a growing school population. Payments to the county by developers of new houses go toward building additional space.

Mr. Nourse said the board has tried to stay under $20 million in county money each year, with 1998 as the exception. But that still does not leave enough for county government projects, county budget analysts say.

Steven R. Cover, director of planning and code enforcement, said this week that a planned reworking of his department's adequate facilities policy could lead to using some money set aside for school construction for renovations.

County budget officials are scheduled to unveil tomorrow what they believe is a workable array of projects for the next five years.

County Executive John G. Gary will consider their recommendations before he sends his budget plan to the County Council.

But he has said he will not propose a tax increase, one obvious way to get more money for public facilities.

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