School board backs budget

Howard County school board members praised Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's proposed capital budget yesterday during a work session, calling it forward-thinking and precedent-setting.

It is also record-breaking: O'Rourke is hoping the county will approve $149.8 million to pay for next fiscal year's capital projects - the largest sum ever requested and $88 million more than the school system received this year.


"This is the first time that we've pulled together a capital budget that lists out almost all of the needs that we have or are going to have," said school board member James P. O'Donnell, who called the financial plan the best he has ever seen.

The bulk of the request is for building schools: $40.6 million to open a high school in 2005 and $41 million to prepare two elementary schools for 2006 debuts.


Other projects include a $10.1 million replacement school for Cedar Lane in Columbia, which educates severely disabled students ages 3 through 21; $7.2 million for an addition and renovation of Glenelg High School; $6.7 million for an addition and modernization at Bushy Park Elementary; more than $6 million to create classrooms for state-required all-day kindergarten, which must be in place by 2007; and $16.7 million in systemic renovations at various schools and buildings.

"My only concern is that we are able to justify these projects," said board member Courtney Watson, who looked closely at the superintendent's plan, asking for the rationale behind many of the proposals.

"I want this to be a very credible document," Watson said, adding that the board needs to be able to prove its worth to the county government, which will be responsible for nearly all of the school system's funds and is likely to find the proposed budget figure impossible to meet.

The county executive convened a committee over the summer charged with developing ways to pay for school construction, and the best idea it could come up with - increasing the county's transfer tax to 1.5 percent - would raise $215 million for schools over eight years, far short of meeting all needs. The tax plan had been shot down by local legislators last winter, but Robey is hoping the committee's backing will keep it afloat this time.

State contributions probably will be slim, as well. A funding freeze was imposed on new construction in May by the state government, in the face of a $260 million backlog of sanctioned projects awaiting funding.

But the Howard school board was unapologetic.

"The board should ask for what it believes it needs and not just say, 'Oh, that's too big a bottom line,' and decrease it," said Sandra H. French, the chairman.

The Howard school system has been criticized for not looking far enough into the future in making its long-term plans, blindsiding county officials with huge monetary requests or having to redistrict students frequently to make up for a lack of space.


The budget request from O'Rourke aims at projects for years to come, outlining a plan to spend $561.2 million over the next decade in renovations and new construction.

"One of the criticisms of our long-term planning process is that we don't' really have a long-term planning process," Watson said, adding that even-closer inspection of future years may be needed.

"I just want them to look at the options," she said of the school system's budget staff.

Other options Watson urged the superintendent's staff to consider include studying the effects of deferring some of the projects, such as the additions at Gorman Crossing and Waverly elementaries.

The board will hold a hearing on the superintendent's proposal at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Department of Education building in Ellicott City, and has scheduled a vote on it for Oct. 9.