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Panel weighs schools' needs, state spending

The first gathering of Howard County Executive James N. Robey's new Committee to Explore Capital Funding Alternatives for Education lasted more than two hours, but two small charts presented to the group told the basic story.

One chart showed that the county spent $28.2 million building schools in 1998, but it expects a request for nearly $147 million next year to keep up with growing enrollment, smaller class sizes, renovations, inflation and all-day kindergarten.

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The other chart shows that state school construction funding has dropped from 40 percent of the county's school construction budget five years ago to 15 percent this year, with prospects for another decline next year, according to Bruce M. Venter, the school system's chief business officer.

By the end of what amounted to a long series of presentations by county government and school officials, one of the 12 committee members who attended the Friday morning session saw little to argue about - so far.

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"It's hard to disagree with the funding needs," said Ananta Hejeebu, who was appointed to the committee by the County Council's minority Republicans.

Indeed, few critics of Robey's plan last year to raise the real estate transfer tax and use the money to leverage $215 million for school construction over eight years disputed the need for more classrooms. The county's General Assembly members killed the idea last winter "for their own reasons," Robey told the committee. County Realtors opposed it because raising the transfer tax would increase the closing costs on home sales.

"I can't overstate the importance of the task you have before you," Robey said in welcoming the group to the 7:30 a.m. session in the George Howard Building. "We have a situation, given the way we pay for schools, that's impossible for us to get our arms around."

And because school needs have always come first in Howard County, Robey said, the growing funding demands for classrooms are eating such a large share of the county's capital budget that there isn't much left for other county projects.

Finding the best way

Robey aide Sang Oh told the group of 15 citizens, representing business, schools, parents and government, that its task is to recommend the best way to pay for schools and all the county's capital needs - without intruding into policy decisions made by elected school or county officials.

"We are not here to second-guess or critique the school board," Oh said, for decisions to lower first- and second-grade class sizes, for example, or for the all-day kindergarten plan, which will require more new rooms. Venter also handed out square-foot-cost comparisons with other jurisdictions to make the point that the county is not constructing "extravagant" buildings.

Oh and Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, also explained that the county budget pays for basic services - schools, police, trash collection and road repairs - leaving little room for enough cash savings to make much impact on school construction.

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School officials noted that increasing specialty needs are intensifying demands for more room. The percentage of county students getting free or reduced-price lunches - a measure of poverty - has doubled to nearly 10 percent over the past decade. Similarly, the number of children whose native language is not English is growing at a 12 percent annual rate, while special education enrollments are rising 3 percent yearly.

Meetings to be aired

The group's meetings will be broadcast at 12:30 p.m. each day this week on the county's government cable television station and repeated at varying times each evening.

So even committee members who cannot attend one session - such as Friday's absentees Steven H. Adler, last year's GOP candidate for county executive, David Berson, chairman of the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance committee, and Alton J. Scavo, a senior Rouse Co. official - can watch television to catch up.

Schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said Howard County has been "remarkable" in its willingness to pay for needed schools. "We've had pretty much the best of all worlds," he said. But the next year or two are expected to produce a huge fiscal crunch - thus the committee.

"We're excited. We're looking forward " to the committee's work, said Patricia Smallwood, a committee member who is president of the Howard County Association of Realtors - the transfer tax increase's chief opponent. With the work just begun, she promised to "keep an open mind."


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