The Howard County school board last week answered pleas from parents and students at two aging, crowded schools by earmarking money for renovations in the capital budget.
The board approved spending $87.4 million in fiscal 2006, with $10 million designated to begin constructing a replacement for the nearly 30-year-old Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood. During a recent public hearing, parents there complained about crowding.
The new school is now expected to open in 2007, a year earlier than originally planned. Money for two new elementary schools -- one in the west and one in the northeast -- was budgeted as well.
Also in the works is a makeover for Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, where three students drew national attention recently for their video highlighting problems such as cracked tile, peeling paint and rodents. The board added $1.7 million in the fiscal 2007 budget to plan for renovations, and it anticipates spending $17 million more to complete them. The school's auditorium is scheduled to be updated over the summer.
"The building has not been maintained to the level that it should be, and it's the responsibility of everyone," School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told the board last week.
In contrast to the past several years, the board made few changes to the capital budget that the superintendent presented to them in September. Despite stepping up the Bushy Park replacement, the board did not change the total amount of the budget for the next fiscal year. About half of the $25.3 million Bushy Park project will be paid for in fiscal 2006, and the rest will be pushed into fiscal 2007. The board originally planned to fund the entire project in one year.
The board also spread out payments on a new northeastern elementary school over the next two years. That school is scheduled to open in 2007, but officials have not yet closed a deal with the Howard County YMCA in Ellicott City to acquire land.
"We still need a site," board member Sandra H. French said. "And there is genuine concern about whether [the school] will be completed on time."
Board members said that opening the northeast school is their top priority. They said they are committed to funding the school, even if they are forced to forgo the stepped-up opening at Bushy Park.
Also included in the fiscal 2006 budget is $17 million in renovations for Howard High School and $4 million for Glenelg High School. The new western elementary school, scheduled to open next year, receives about $8.5 million under the fiscal 2006 year capital budget.
The school system has included money for the next several years to pay for classrooms for full-day kindergarten, which state law requires all schools districts to offer by 2007. There are also plans for a new middle school in western Howard, possibly opening in 2011.
The capital budget now moves to County Executive James N. Robey (D), who is expected to schedule a public hearing on it in early December.
The proposal is significantly lower than last year's $115 million request. But Cousin cautioned that there is no guarantee the county can afford all the school system's proposed projects. That would force school officials to make tough choices down the road.
"The capital budget has never been funded to the full amount of the request," he said.