Parents, teachers and community members packed the Howard County school board chambers last night, confronting the school system about crowding and the need to rush construction of planned elementary and middle schools.
The forum was called by the school board to give the public the opportunity to comment on the proposed capital budget for 2001 and capital improvement plan for 2002 to 2006. For fiscal year 2001, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has requested $51 million in capital funds for construction, renovations and equipment.
The school board will vote on the proposed budget at its regular 7: 30 p.m. meeting Thursday .
The budget calls for a new elementary school in the northeast part of the county to open in August 2003 and a middle school in western Howard County by 2004.
But parents said those dates are too late to accommodate the swelling ranks of pupils in those areas.
"Families are moving into the area for our schools and reputation," said Brenda von Rautenkranz, a parent at Glenwood Middle School and PTA member. "Delaying the construction of this school will only compound problems brought on by overcrowding. Let's be pro-active."
Von Rautenkranz said the middle school is growing at a rate of 70 pupils a year and that by 2004, the school population will exceed 1,000. The school's capacity is 584 pupils.
"[Portable classrooms] are not the answer to our problems," she said.
Almost half the standing-room-only crowd represented western Howard County, while another half was composed of parents from the northeast.
Frank Aquino, a parent at Ilchester Elementary, said the situation is also urgent in Ellicott City and other northeast neighborhoods. Ilchester has more than 800 pupils and is projected to grow significantly in the next three years.
Said Aquino: "The school is needed now."
Courtney Watson, who has long been a vocal advocate for a new elementary school in the northeast, said speeding up the time line for the school's opening would also benefit schools in other areas of the county.
"Not only do the northeast children need it, but [children in eastern] Columbia need it" to keep down class sizes, said Watson, an Ilchester Elementary parent.
Some parents from Columbia schools, which are noted for less-crowded classrooms, also spoke at last night's meeting, saying they feel overwhelmed.
Tess Teeter, a parent at Pointers Run Elementary, complained to the board of bulging cafeterias and strained parking lots.
The PTA Council of Howard County agreed with many of the parent groups at the forum that growth is the most serious problem in the school district.
"Our unofficial head count indicates that many facilities are presently more crowded than the proposed capital budget would lead you to believe," said Laura Mettle, chairwoman of the PTA Council's budget committee.
"Patterns of growth exist which have already, or will in the future, lead to seriously overcrowded schools in several districts unless Howard County officials address those needs promptly," Mettle said.