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baltimoresun.com

Harford schools face tough decisions before capital improvement plan vote

BY MARISSA GALLO, mgallo@theaegis.com

10:54 PM EDT, September 3, 2012

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Although the 2012-13 school year has just begun, the Harford County Board of Education is already focused on what's going to happen in 2014.

The board has already begun planning its fiscal year 2014 capital improvement plan, and the big debate over which school construction projects to put on there — if any — is still up in the air.

The decision, which will come near the end of September, won't be an easy one for the school board.

One influential board member says he wants to see what the superintendent and his staff recommend before taking his own position, while conceding the county has yet to explain where all the money will come from for projects that seem to be gaining favor with the public.

Several communities have been strongly advocating for new school buildings, but school systems across Maryland will be facing new fiscal challenges in the upcoming years, with the shift of teacher pension costs onto individual jurisdictions, rather than being covered by the state, placing a greater financial burden on counties to fund their schools' operating budgets.

And, if the Harford school system can afford to build a new school, the question still remains: Who goes first?

HdG High vs. Youth's Benefit Elementary

Havre de Grace residents, including several county officials led by Harford County Executive David Craig, have been pushing for the county's oldest high school to be rebuilt for quite some time.

Fallston community members have done the same, going as far as to form the organization Build It Now, which advocates for replacements of the school system's aging infrastructures, namely Youth's Benefit and, to a lesser extent, William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School.

Earlier this summer, Craig made Havre de Grace High School's replacement building a priority for the county's school construction needs. In turn, he told the Harford County Council and school officials he would not fund any other school construction projects in the 2014 and 2015 county budgets unless HHS was first on the list.

Craig was criticized for this move, but stood behind his words.

During a public meeting Aug. 20 held by the school board, county spokesman Bob Thomas read a letter from Craig, saying it is the county executive's plan to include new buildings for HHS and Youth's Benefit in the county's fiscal year 2014 capital budget, as well as new buildings for William Paca/Old Post Road and Homestead-Wakefield elementary schools in the 2016 budget.

Around 150 residents, mostly from Havre de Grace and Fallston, attended the public meeting and addressed school board members as to why their schools need to be replaced.

School construction in the 2014 capital budget

In June, the school board began discussions as to what to include on the 2012 Educational Facilities Master Plan, which is submitted to the state every July 1.

The plan is a tool to plot out possible school construction and other facility improvements.

In no particular order of priority, the schools that were on that plan during the June meeting were Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School, John Archer School, Youth's Benefit Elementary, William Paca-Old Post Road Elementary and Joppatowne High School. Noticeably absent was Havre de Grace High School.

School board members were concerned the facilities plan could appear as a commitment to certain school construction projects, and it was marginally approved.

It was stressed that board members can adjust the plan according to priorities determined by a countywide facility assessment being done, which could take more than a year to complete, and funds available to the school system.

During that meeting on June 25, Build It Now members asked, as they have in previous meetings, for the school board to make a new YBES a priority in an upcoming capital budget.

Board of Education President Leonard Wheeler said the comment gave him "pause as to the direction of this master plan" and wants to be sure "the interests and philosophy of the school system prevails."

The school's capital improvement plan for 2014 doesn't contain any new school construction projects because, school system staff have explained, the school system is waiting on the comprehensive study on the county's schools.

In July, the school took its first look at the capital budget for fiscal year 2014.

Superintendent Robert Tomback explained during the recent public meeting that the topic will be on the school board's agenda for the Sept. 10 meeting, but not as an action item. During the Sept. 24 meeting the board will then vote to adopt the capital improvement plan.

Board vice president speaks out

Board of Education Vice President Rick Grambo said Thursday he doesn't know if construction projects for Havre de Grace High and Youth's Benefit will be put on the capital improvement plan in light of Craig's pledged commitment for funding.

"I'm waiting to see what the superintendent and his staff proposes," he said. "I do know the superintendent and his staff are working hard on things, trying to make the right decisions. It'll be interesting to see what plan they put forth to us [the school board] to vote on."

Grambo added that he wouldn't be surprised if the capital improvement plan includes the construction projects, especially in light of comments made by Sen. Barry Glassman during the public meeting.

Glassman, expected to be a candidate for county executive in 2014, urged school officials to create a "predictable" capital improvement plan the state "can fund over time" rather than leave any construction projects off and run the risk of it looking like Harford has nothing in the works.

He said Harford's legislators will stand behind whatever the board decides to go with as far as school construction.

Grambo has concerns, however, that he hasn't seen a plan from the county on how it would fund a new HHS and YBES.

"There are costs we have to worry about," he said. "I'm anxious to see the whole plan from the county."

The school system is "running pretty lean," Grambo said, and he doesn't want to see it making any sacrifices as far as employees or anything else. "I don't want to cause ourselves any grief."