Schools focus on upkeep

The Baltimore Sun

Top Howard County school officials say that there is a clear need for the $118 million capital budget unveiled by Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, but many expect a tough fight to fund the entire wish list.

"I'm always optimistic. But I know [the budget] will be dependent on funds," said Cousin, whose plan reflects an $18 million increase from the current capital budget.

"We'll have difficult choices to make at the appropriate time," said school board Vice Chairman Frank Aquino.

Cousin's proposed budget includes $27 million to partially fund a renovation project at Mount Hebron High School; $20 million for systemic renovations at three buildings; $13.75 million to add to and renovate the "Old" Cedar Lane School; $12 million to construct a maintenance-warehouse facility; and $6.28 million for the addition of a cafetorium at Elkridge Elementary School.

The plan, presented to the school board Thursday, focuses primarily on maintenance of existing sites. In the past, increased enrollment had prompted officials to devote capital budget to money school construction.

"Before, the focus was on capacity; now the focus is on deferred maintenance programs," said Ken Roey, the school system's executive director of facilities and management.

One of the most controversial budget items is bound to be the renovation project at Mount Hebron High. Cousin has requested a total of $50 million for a two-year renovation project at the school.

The Mount Hebron project is similar to a plan that Cousin supported this year and that parents questioned. Some parents want a replacement school that mirrors new facilities such as Marriotts Ridge High, which opened during the 2005-2006 school year.

"When we went through the analysis of alternatives in terms of what were the academic and maintenance requirements, and weighed that against the funding limitations, we felt that overall this was the best recommendation for the school system," Roey said.

Roey acknowledged that some parents were not happy with the renovation plan. "The leadership was not happy with the plan and have some reservations," he added.

Cousin, who also unveiled a long-range master plan that lists construction projects through 2017, plans a similar $50 million renovation project at Atholton High School. Construction will likely begin in 2011.

"Whatever we do at Mount Hebron, we will have to do at Atholton," Roey said. "They are similar [in] age. ... If we are to have equity, we would have to do the same."

Securing funds for the projects will be a top concern for system officials.

Last year, Howard County had all but $20 million of its capital budget supported by state and local funds, Cousin said. Roey expects less support this year.

"The state contributions are likely to drop this year because of funding problems," Roey said. "At the local level, the funding picture has not changed over the past couple of years."

Roey said that the school system needs to identify a recurring funding source for capital projects.

"As long as a new dedicated funding source [isn't] found, it will be a challenge to fund the budget in the future," he said.

Last school year, the system used up the last of the $60 million generated for capital budget needs from a three-year tax surcharge on new homes. The surcharge expired and was not renewed.

"It's a big issue beyond the scope of the [school] board," Cousin said. "We need to look at this as a community issue, not only as a school issue."

The school board will hold a public hearing on the capital budget at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Board of Education headquarters in Ellicott City. In addition, the school board will hold work sessions Sept. 21 and Oct. 1 at the Board of Education. On Oct. 5, the board is scheduled to submit the capital budget to the state.

In May, the board is scheduled to adopt the capital and operating budgets for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1.

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