The amount of money the Howard County school system plans to spend on construction and renovations would decrease for the first time in three years under a capital budget for fiscal 2006 proposed by Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
Two of the biggest factors behind this year's smaller $87 million proposal are the completion of the county's 12th high school, Marriott's Ridge, and a slower pace of enrollment growth, school officials said. Last year's proposed capital budget was nearly $150 million, though schools ended up receiving only about $96 million.
"We wanted to come up with an amount that met the needs of the school system and also is realistic and affordable," Cousin said.
The budget includes money for two new elementary schools: one to open in western Howard in 2006 and another in the northeast in 2007. Plans for an elementary school in the north have been scrapped after revised enrollment projections showed that it is not needed, said David Drown, director of geographic systems for the schools. Likewise, an addition to Gorman Crossing Elementary School has been delayed until 2007.
Drown said that growth in the county has leveled off since the 1990s, when more than 1,000 new students were enrolling in public schools each year.
"We continue to increase at a decreasing rate," he said.
The slowdown allows school officials to funnel money to older schools that had been overlooked in previous years as the system struggled to keep up with the county's burgeoning population. Multimillion-dollar renovations at Howard and Glenelg high schools, for example, are expected to be largely finished by 2006. The proposed budget also includes money for renovations at three other schools that had been cut from last year's budget.
School board members expressed overall support for the budget, though each of the five members said there are still some concerns.
Board member Patricia S. Gordon said she is worried that the budget will leave several schools crowded. Vice Chairman James O'Donnell echoed those concerns and said the school system should develop a facilities plan to help forecast its needs.
"We're still not able to get a good idea of what capacity we now have. I think we are overestimating the capacity in a lot of schools," he said. "Until we get our hands around what's happening, I'm concerned."
Still, board Chairman Courtney Watson said the proposed budget is "reasonable."
"I'm much, much more comfortable with this budget now than I was with the budget at this time last year," she said.
Last year, board members sliced about $35 million from then-Superintendent John O'Rourke's proposed budget before sending it to County Executive James N. Robey (D), who then cut an additional $19 million.
Over the past few years, the county has struggled to find ways to finance school construction. Robey twice has failed to persuade the county's delegation to the General Assembly to approve a half-percentage point increase in the real estate transfer tax, to 1.5 percent. Instead, the delegation last year approved an excise tax on new homes that allowed the county to borrow about $58 million.
The school system has spent about $41.8 million of that money, according to Raymond S. Wacks, county budget administrator.
School officials cautioned that more money may be needed in the future as the cost of building materials continues to increase. Several projects listed in next year's budget have higher price tags than officials had anticipated. The two elementary schools each will cost about $5 million more than expected, and the price for Howard High's renovations is also up several million dollars.
Still, Watson and school board member Sandra H. French said Robey smiled when he was told the amount of the proposed budget at a reception last week. He stopped short, however, of promising to fund the entire request.
Wacks said the county is anticipating large budgets from Howard Community College, the library system and the fire department.
"You can't just look at the Board of Education all by itself," he said. "You have to look at it with all of the other demands."