At the first-ever Baltimore Banner panel in Howard County Tuesday night, officials and experts touched on hot topics such as the Zum bus crisis, the consequences of narrowly avoided cuts in the school system’s budget, as well as the county’s lack of affordable housing and plans for the coveted lakefront.

The panel featured County Executive Calvin Ball and Bill Barnes, the school system’s superintendent.

The event, “Howard County: Unpacking a Dynamic and Visionary Region, by The Baltimore Banner,” took place in Columbia, sandwiched between Merriweather Post Pavilion and The Mall in Columbia. Around 300 people registered for the panel, making it a sold-out event.

Baltimore Banner CEO Bob Cohn opened the event with news that the organization is adding two more reporters and a dedicated newsletter to cover the region.

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Ongoing issues with Zum buses

Zum, the California-based startup that contracted at $27 million to operate more than half the school system’s bus routes, was at the forefront of Barnes’ mind.

Bill Barnes, the Howard County Public Schools superintendent, said he was "uncomfortable" with Zum's service as the district's bus operator. (Steve Ruark/for The Baltimore Banner)

“I’m not comfortable with the direct level of service at this moment because we still have disruptions that should have been ironed out this late into the school year,” Barnes said in a panel discussion with Banner reporter Kristen Griffith.

Barnes said he was concerned with, and is paying close attention to, the vacancies seen with the contracted bus drivers.

In an interview after the panel discussion, Barnes said that to make sure there is not a “repeat performance” with Zum’s services, he will meet up to twice a week with his transportation team starting next week.

In those meetings they will look at metrics like student ridership, enrollment, and how well the school system is staffing the service, among other measurements to make sure Zum’s operations are successful.

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The school system is in year one of a three-year contract, he said. Barnes, who served as acting superintendent since January 10, was recently tapped by the school board to be the permanent superintendent.

Low morale among teachers

Benjamin Schmitt, the Howard County Education Association President, said teacher morale was at "an all-time low." (Steve Ruark/for The Baltimore Banner)

Also on the panel was Jarrett Carter Sr., vice president of Howard Community College; Terri Marcus, president of the county’s PTA Council; and Benjamin Schmitt, president of the Howard County Education Association.

Schmitt said that since the pandemic, morale among educators has been low, but it has dropped even lower due to nationwide staffing shortages, retention issues, funding disparities across schools, potential budget cuts and the Zum bus crisis.

“Morale is at an all-time low,” he said. “Trust in the Board of Education is at an all-time low.”

After a difficult budget season, the school board approved a $1.5 billion operating budget. The day prior, the County Council approved and adopted the $2.4 billion operating budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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Schmitt added that despite the tough years for educators, parents of students had been very supportive.

“When teachers are hurting, parents hurt, too,” Marcus said.

Lack of affordable housing

Banner Business Editor Julie Bykowicz, in a panel she moderated, asked how the county is doing in terms of affordable housing.

The simple answer from panelist Tom Coale, an attorney and lobbyist with Perry, White, Ross & Jacobson: bad.

“We have some of the highest percentage increases in housing costs in the state and thereby in the country,” Coale said.

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Banner business and enterprise editor Julie Bykowicz, far right, posed a question about affordable housing. (Steve Ruark/for The Baltimore Banner)

He said the county must reexamine where affordable housing should be located, and that there are not enough houses in the county.

“The fact that our home prices are skyrocketing the way they are — that is a moral weight that all of us bear,” Coale said. “It should not be how it exists, and it’s going to take more than affordable housing to fix it.”

Ball, who was also on the panel, echoed that affordable housing is a challenge. He said he wants a full spectrum of housing availability, “and we are sometimes the victims of our success” as a safe county with a sought-after school system and an increasing demand from people who want to live in the county.

He said he the county must ensure that they have the appropriate infrastructure to support a high quality of life.

Columbia lakefront plans inevitably came with drama

Columbia’s Lakefront has seen plenty of drama recently, including a $17 million lawsuit that paved the way for a local developer to build there and a proposed public library that left residents upset with the lack of transparency in the development plans.

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“What’s going on with the Lakefront is what’s to be expected,” Coale said. “Change is going to drive up some controversy, some confusion, in any circumstances.”

Ball said that the Lakefront has always been important for commerce and for people to enjoy what Howard County has to offer.

Also on the panel were Darshni Patel, director of Howard County Economic Development Authority, and Phillip Dodge, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Partnership.