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Supporters appeal for Mount Hebron

The Baltimore Sun

Thomas Fruscello, a teacher at Mount Hebron High School, used an automotive analogy to make his point about the physical condition of the school to the Howard County Board of Education during a lengthy public budget hearing last week.

"It's our educational vehicle," he said. "Most assuredly it has a good sound body, brick and block, but in almost every other category this building fails to meet the needs of its population. It is a Chevrolet Corvair of school buildings -- unsafe at any speed."

Fruscello was not alone, as speaker after speaker Thursday night detailed deficiencies and needs at the Ellicott City school, which is scheduled for a major renovation.

Allie Birmingham, the school's Student Government Association president, asked board members to look to nearby Montgomery County for guidance. That school system, she said, has a modernization plan that provides all schools with an equitable learning environment.

"Modernizations not only upgrade building systems, such as heating, air conditioning and plumbing, but also bring aging facilities up to the same educational program standards as new schools," Birmingham said.

Hundreds of Mount Hebron supporters filled the boardroom as speakers asked board members to consider options that included environmentally friendly designs and a renovation plan that limited disruption to the educational process. Forty-two people testified.

Because the hearing took 2 1/2 hours, Chairman Diane Mikulis postponed until Friday a board work session that had been scheduled afterward.

At that session, the board got more bad news about the Mount Hebron project. The $50 million plan known as option 2B that school officials were favoring would require two additional fire walls, board members heard, which would increase the price by several million dollars.

Ken Roey, executive director of facilities and management for the school system, said that because of the fire-wall problem, he is no longer recommending option 2B.

A new idea, he said, would be to renovate the existing building, and build a separate annex next to it, avoiding the fire-wall problem. Breezeways would allow students indoor access between the two structures. There is no cost estimate for an annex, he said.

"Today, we mostly asked questions," Mikulis said after the Friday meeting.

Although most of the testimony at Thursday night's hearing focused on Mount Hebron, the meeting also covered the $118 million capital budget request for fiscal 2009, which begins next July.

The proposed budget includes $27 million to partially fund a renovation project at Mount Hebron; $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.

"We have requested $118 million to meet the needs of the entire school system," Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said before the meeting. "We need to find a way to meet those needs. We have 72 schools in the school system."

Some of the most stinging comments at the hearing came from Mary Jane Barbato-Grauso, president of PTA Council of Howard County.

"This is embarrassing," she said, referring to a Mount Hebron advocacy group's use of the Freedom of Information Act to discover an assessment of the school that supported a major addition at the school or a replacement school. "Require and respect truth and transparency."

Barbato-Grauso suggested that board members defer projects such as renovating the old Cedar Lane School and the construction of a maintenance-warehouse facility.

Cindy Ardinger, head of the Help Mount Hebron Committee, said her school improvement group wants top officials to do a comparison between building a replacement school and a renovation that addresses all the deficiencies in the building.

"If that renovation exceeds or comes close to a new school, we want a replacement school," she said after a PowerPoint presentation that she and three members of the committee presented to the board.

"I don't want to be Glenelg [High]," she said, referring to earlier testimony that alluded to flaws in the renovations of other schools. "I don't want to be Howard [High]."

When Cousin announced his capital budget plans this month, Roey said that the $50 million set aside to pay for a renovation project at Mount Hebron is similar to the option 2B plan that Cousin promoted this year. Many parents, students and staff members have spoken out against that plan.

The board will hold a work session and vote on the capital budget Oct. 1, Mikulis said. The board is scheduled to submit the plan to the state Oct. 5. Then a planning committee will be formed to determine the scope of the Mount Hebron renovation project.

"Ideally, we would like to do that planning by summer 2008," Cousin said.

Thursday's meeting was the latest chapter in the battle over Mount Hebron, built in 1964 to be a junior high and one of the oldest schools in the county.

In January, Cousin unveiled construction options for the school that ranged from $29.8 million for routine mechanical upgrades to $91.4 million to replace most of the school.

Cousin favored a $50 million option that included mechanical upgrades at the school, full systemic renovations and an expansion of the school's art, athletic and administrative offices.

Also in January, a sewage leak occurred in several second-floor science rooms, including one in which Fruscello was administering a test.

"As a putrid, fecal-laden river oozed its way to the front of the room, my students held their noses, calmly got their stuff and went into a nearby hallway to finish the exam," he said at Thursday's hearing. "They did so without a hitch because they are used to acclimating every day, in smaller ways, to make things work."

More than 728 students signed a letter of complaint to the school board. The letter detailed years of problems in the school.

In March, Mount Hebron staff members sent a letter detailing their concerns to County Executive Ken Ulman and County Council members. The letter, signed by 99 employees, listed problems it says will not be addressed by Cousin's plan, including unsafe and narrow hallways in instruction areas, asbestos, mold and inadequate plumbing.

The board delayed action on a Mount Hebron plan in March to wait for completion of a comparative survey of conditions at Mount Hebron, Atholton, Centennial and Hammond -- high schools of similar age. That facilities assessment determined that Mount Hebron is in most need of repair and capital funding.

Last month, some Mount Hebron parents were outraged when they discovered an April 2006 report that recommended major additions or the construction of a new school. The parents -- who obtained the report under the Freedom of Information Act -- said school officials never shared the information with them and appeared to be attempting to hide it.

Leaders of the Help Mount Hebron Committee said they wanted top school system officials to put together a compilation of suggestions for the school generated from four reports -- including the one from April 2006 -- that have been created for the school construction project.

Cousin said he was not critical of the parents at Mount Hebron who have been vocal about their opposition to his plans for the school.

"One of the good things about living in Howard County is that people are a strong advocate in this community," Cousin said before Thursday's meeting.

He also stressed the need for accuracy in the complaints. "People need to advocate, but not exaggerate," he said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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