Ball moves to spend $35M on three school projects including Oakland Mills, creating 'domino impact' on school board's plans

·4 min read

Sep. 22—Howard County Executive Calvin Ball sent a letter to the Board of Education Monday saying he would allocate $35 million in state funds to three school construction projects, including systemic renovations at Oakland Mills High School.

But school officials say the decision could delay projects prioritized in the superintendent's proposed capital budget for fiscal 2024 that planned to draw from that same funding. It could even jeopardize future full-scale renovations at Oakland Mills, according to one school board member.

"This is like putting a Band-Aid on a major injury," Board of Education Chair Vicky Cutroneo said. "Oakland Mills High School needs a complete modernization renovation and to do this would put that project at risk and be pushed further down the priority list in the future."

Ball's plan would put $21.7 million toward creating full-day prekindergarten services at Faulkner Ridge Center, $9.9 million into systemic renovations at Oakland Mills High School and $3.3 million into environmental quality repairs, school security measures and special education program needs throughout the system.

Ball, a Democrat, is seeking reelection this year.

"We found out [about the letter] when the community did," Cutroneo said. "We were unprepared to address this quickly; the staff has to take the time to analyze it."

Cutroneo and the board responded to the county executive with their own letter Wednesday, stating staff would be unable to fully vet the implications of the allocations on the capital budget before the close of business Thursday, when Ball requested the funding application be submitted to the state.

The state's Interagency Commission on School Construction does not require application submissions until May 1, 2023. The county executive's office said that the IAC would allow them to submit an application by close of business on Sept. 30 in order to get on the agency's Oct. 13 agenda.

"We felt that it was critical that the BOE and our community be formally aware of the availability of these funds and our allocation decisions as part of their capital budget proposal," Ball said in an email, regarding the compressed timeline.

The state funding was made possible through Senate Bill 291, signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May, that appropriated $237 million for building construction and capital improvements to select school systems, including Howard County. The funding, called a "pass-through grant," is unique in that it can only be applied to projects selected by the county government and does not require the approval of the Board of Education or the school system.

Ball's allocations would have a "domino impact" on the proposed capital budget, the school board wrote. In addition to the Faulkner Ridge Center, the budget suggested using pass-through grant funding for renovations and additions at Dunloggin and Oakland Mills middle schools as well as the construction of Howard's 43rd elementary school.

The board also warned the $9.97 allocation to address immediate renovations and repairs at Oakland Mills High School could limit the school system's ability to access state matching dollars needed for a future full-scale renovation there. Funding for the Oakland Mills High School renovation and addition had already been delayed to fiscal 2033.

The school has not had a full HVAC replacement since the building opened in 1973.

When Oakland Mills High School teacher Amy Brooks saw Ball's letter on Tuesday, she put it on her classroom projector and read it out loud to her ninth grade English students, all of whom clapped, she said.

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"We've been making noise for a while and it's felt like we haven't been a priority or even noticed," Brooks said. "It feels really validating to have our county executive speak up on behalf of us and to use his influence to try to create a healthier environment."

Students and teachers at Oakland Mills have complained about a variety of facilities issues, from missing ceiling tiles and broken scoreboards to the presence of mold in classrooms.

"One of the concerns is, are we going to have to fight for [renovations] every year until shovel hits dirt?" said Brooks, whose middle child attends the school. "The kids really want to focus on school and not on their asthma or not being able to breathe."

Cutroneo says deferred maintenance costs are compounded by the fact many of the county's schools were built in the 1970s and 1980s, with systems aging together and needing simultaneous repairs.

"The reality the board has faced every year is making 'Sophie's Choice' and prioritizing, because there's no doubt that the schools need and deserve these renovations, we just cannot do it [all]," she said.

The Board of Education planned to hold a public hearing on the superintendent's proposed capital budget Thursday night, followed on Sept. 29 by a work session and initial vote on the budget. The board must submit its capital budget request to the state by Oct. 4.