Politics cloud forecast for school board


Whether Howard County's school board expands from five to seven members next year might depend as much on local and national politics as on local education issues.

The county's education community appears to be solidly behind the idea of enlarging the board while shortening members' terms to four years, according to testimony at a legislative public hearing Thursday night. But the political situation is much more unsettled.

The two state legislators whose votes killed the school board bill last year might be gone by January when the General Assembly convenes, leaving voting outcomes uncertain.

Howard County has three state senators, and Sen. Martin G. Madden has said he will resign his seat Jan. 7, while his fellow Republican senator, Christopher J. McCabe, is under consideration for a Bush administration job.

Their votes killed the bill last year, though the county's delegates had overwhelmingly approved it. Madden dislikes the idea of four-year terms, while McCabe opposes expanding the board to seven members. Local bills must win approval separately from Howard delegates and senators.

At the very least, sensitive local bills - including requests for state funding to plan a new police and fire training facility and a courthouse renovation project - likely will not be voted on until the 2002 session begins, officials said. Usually, Howard's legislators try to vote on local bills before the session starts.

If the delegation meets Nov. 28, as planned, Madden said, he would vote only on other, noncontentious bills.

"I suspect that [school board] bill is one that will not be acted on until Senator Madden's replacement is in office," said McCabe, who is waiting to hear about a possible job in Washington.

"This is a very unique year," said McCabe, chairman of the county's three-member Senate delegation. "There are a number of interesting and important bond bills. We took more testimony [on those] than we have ever received."

Those requests for state funding could be a tough sell in what is predicted to be a very tough budget year. They include requests for $500,000 to help renovate the 19th-century house at Blandair, the county's new 300-acre park in Columbia; $400,000 to build a new courtroom, jury deliberation rooms and holding cells in the Circuit Courthouse; and $500,000 to plan a county police-fire training facility - County Executive James N. Robey's top priority.

The last item is "obviously very important to us, now more than ever," said Victoria Goodman, the county's public information director.

But even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and despite an apparent pressing need, legislators are not automatically supporting the money for a police-fire training facility.

Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan said determining the location of such a facility is crucial before support would be forthcoming. James M. Irvin, county public works director, said he is working on the issue and should have a spot identified by January.

And despite gloom-and-doom reports on funding for next year, Frank S. Turner, the House delegation chairman, said he believes the county has a good chance to get state funding.

"There's a great chance," the Democrat said, noting that Howard has "a tremendous need," and about $20 million in state bond funds is available statewide every year.

The county uses space at the Gateway building in Columbia for police recruit training, and firefighters use snake- and rodent-infested trailers at a site in Cooksville that the county has put up for sale. A new training site could be placed near the Alpha Ridge landfill, where the outdoor pistol range is, but elected officials are wary of opposition from nearby residents.

Meanwhile, the argument about space at the courthouse erupted again. A study recommended moving prosecutors out of the building and using the 6,200 square feet for other things as a stopgap measure to postpone building a new courts building for five to seven years, Irvin said.

But Deputy State's Attorney Dario Broccolino denounced that proposal at the hearing, suggesting to legislators that the land records office should move instead, or that a new courthouse should be built now. The argument could weaken the county's request for state funds, but the outcome of all the bills is in doubt.

Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who introduced the school board expansion bill, noted that every witness who spoke at the hearing favored the proposal, although school board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt expressed doubts about the shorter terms.

Bobo said she has no idea how the bill will fare this year. "I don't know," she said. "Who's going to vote?"

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