Upkeep of Schools Is New Focus For Budget

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

Howard County's four older high schools need $35 million in repairs, according to a recently released study, and education leaders are warning that a dedicated source of capital is needed.

"There are not sufficient funds unless we have a sustainable source of funding for school improvement," Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said last week. "We will talk about this as a community. Stay tuned."

A recently released study -- spurred by debates over serious maintenance needs at Ellicott City's Mount Hebron High School -- took a look at deteriorating conditions at that facility along with three other older high schools: Atholton and Hammond in Columbia and Centennial in Ellicott City.

An estimated $35 million is needed for maintenance and replacement of essentials such as mechanical systems and roofs in the next two decades. "This is just the beginning," Cousin said. An additional $120 million would be required to bring the older schools up to the standards of the county's newer schools, according to Ken Roey, the district's executive director of facility planning.

A second phase of the study, examining the future maintenance needs of the eight other high schools and 19 middle schools in the district, is underway, Roey said. The third phase, looking at 39 elementary schools, is expected to finish next year.

School board Chairman Diane Mikulis said the report "quantifies the need."

But she, like Cousin, expressed concern about the future costs of school upkeep: "We need a sustainable revenue source."

The focus on aging schools is a switch for the district, which over much of the past decade has struggled with the cost of building schools. One measure, an excise tax on new housing, allowed the county to borrow $76.8 million for school construction during the past four fiscal years, Roey said. But those funds have been spent, Cousin noted.

"The emphasis is changing to looking at existing facilities and how we can make sure they are in the best physical shape they can be," he said.

Ultimately, any proposal for school funding or new taxes would have to come from the county executive and be approved by the five-member county council.

Howard's schools account for, by far, the largest of any of the county's capital budgets. County Executive Ken Ulman (D) has repeatedly said that the county's highly rated school system is "the engine that drives the county."

But he cautioned in an interview this week that he and the council must weigh the needs of the schools against other demands on the county budget, from fire stations and libraries to community centers and government buildings, when deciding how to allocate finite resources.

"The bottom line is that we have some pretty tough decisions to make," Ulman said.

"We'll have to find additional revenue or lower expectations."

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