Oakland Mills students urge Board of Education to speed up renovations, address mold and air quality issues at their school

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Sep. 23—About 40 community members, including 10 students, testified Thursday night during a public hearing on Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano's proposed capital budget for fiscal 2024 and Long-Range Master Plan.

Martirano's 10-year plan dropped construction of the county's 14th public high school and delayed funding for a renovation and addition at Oakland Mills High School to 2033. At the hearing, Oakland Mills students testified about a wide range of facilities issues at their school and urged the superintendent and board to take action.

"As a student, I do not feel safe going to school every day knowing that we do not have the airflow to combat viruses like COVID-19," said Oakland Mills sophomore Malia Edelson. "I also do not feel safe knowing that mold has formed because the HVAC system cannot mix in fresh air while keeping humidity down."

Oakland Mills has never had a full HVAC replacement. The school opened in 1973 and the last major renovation to the building was in 2005. In addition to mold, students complained of falling ceiling tiles, overcrowding in hallways and wildly fluctuating temperatures in classrooms.

"This is a dangerous environment," freshman Grey McGillivray-Stubbs testified. "Oakland Mills should not be risked for the benefit of the budget ... Please consider reverting the renovation date to the earliest date possible."

The public hearing comes amid ongoing friction between the Board of Education and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, who this week moved to allocate $35 million in state funding to three school construction projects, including $9.9 million in systemic renovations at Oakland Mills High School.

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

Ball, a Democrat, is seeking reelection in this year's county executive race.

During a joint County Council and Board of Education meeting Monday, some council members questioned why Oakland Mills faced repeated delays given the presence of mold and other health threats.

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"I hear the data, I hear the [capital budget] funding," said County Council Chair Opel Jones, a Democrat also seeking reelection this year. "How does that sit with kids being with substandard HVAC, or mold or different things that we've heard about over the years and then saying, 'This is a priority to fix it but not for 10 or 11 years.'... What do we do as a community?"

School officials responded by saying they've looked at one-time funding sources but are ultimately faced with more than $500 million in deferred maintenance projects across the system and must make short-term repairs on a rolling basis to keep old systems such as HVACs functioning before they can get fully replaced.

"I hear the community concerns, we're boots on the ground," Martirano said. "But at the end of the day, I'm responsible to the Board of Education and the taxpayers of this community to follow the objective data points that go into the development of this [budget], combined with a limitation on dollars."

The proposed capital budget for fiscal 2024 totals $76 million, while the five-year Capital Improvement Program asks for more than $450 million.

"We've had budgets that ask for much more money," said HCPSS Chief Operating Officer Scott Washington. "We've shown the budgets that show what the needs are and they're funding levels that we're told are not fundable."

The Board of Education is set to hold a work session and initial vote on the proposed capital budget on Sept. 29. The board must then submit its capital budget request, with any modifications to the superintendent's proposal, to the state by Oct. 4.

"I will have graduated by the time these problems get fixed but I want to make sure that future students will not have to deal with all of these issues," Edelson concluded. "I also do not want another 11 years of future students to have the same experience as me."