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The Baltimore Sun

Board divided over school construction priorities

Board of education members were divided Monday evening over the 2012 Educational Facilities Master Plan and what implications it could have on school construction prioritizations.

The master plan, which is submitted to the state every July 1, is used as a planning tool to address projected facility construction and improvements.

Schools on the project list include Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School, John Archer School, Youth's Benefit Elementary, William Paca-Old Post Road Elementary and Joppatowne High School, though not necessarily in that order.

What's not on the master plan is a replacement for Havre de Grace High School, Harford's oldest high school building.

Harford County Executive David Craig has been telling school and other elected officials that for the next two years he will not authorize funding for any new school construction projects, specifically those on the priority list, until Havre de Grace High School is atop the list.

The 2012 master plan, in particular, will serve as the basis for the 2014 fiscal year capital improvement program.

Projects that are part of the plan, as presented to the board, are on hold pending the completion of the Harford County Comprehensive Facilities Master Plan.

While the plan is only a road map for school construction projects and can be revised by the school board, board members were concerned that the plan may appear like a commitment to particular schools in a particular order.

The hesitation came as no surprise as members of the organization Build It Now spoke earlier that night, asking the board to put Youth's Benefit Elementary School on the Harford County Public School's fiscal year 2014 capital improvements budget.

Three residents of the Fallston community spoke on behalf of the organization Build It Now, which advocates for the construction of a new Youth's Benefit Elementary School.

Paul MacMillan, Youth's Benefit PTA President Laura Runyeon and Beth Poggioli, president of the Greater Fallston Association, all asked the board to put the project on its 2014 capital improvements plan.

The speakers were just a few out of about 20 community members wearing green in support of Build It Now.

Student and teacher performance at the school has "been exceptional over the years," MacMillan said. "But with each passing year the condition of the school and decline of that school is analogous to our teachers and students."

He, again, asked the board to make Youth's Benefit "your number on priority."

Runyeon explained that the group has been advocating for the school's replacement for more than a year and "failing building issues continue to mount."

"This facility is not healing itself," she said.

Poggioli commented that the reason the school has had "no major upgrades or renovations" is because the school's two buildings were to be torn down and replaced as one single facility.

"We are grateful to the board for your tireless efforts," she said, but it is necessary to have a single building that is "safe, secure and technologically sufficient."

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Cornell Brown explained to the board during its business meeting that it is required by the state to submit a master plan every July and it sets the framework for future capital improvement deliberations.

The plan includes board policies and procedures, information on enrollment and a facility's condition. It also supports the capital budget the school system submits to the state in October.

"The master plan does not obligate the board to any fiscal decision," Brown said. "It just establishes the ideas and parameters that we would continue to use."

He added that the plan does not indicate the priority of projects and the board would make that decision only once the county scope study has been completed.

Based on the funds that are available to the school system, Brown continued, "projects have been placed on hold" until it is determined what the school system's needs are through the study.

Board member James Thornton asked Brown what would happen if the board didn't submit a plan to the state.

"It's a requirement," Brown reiterated. Since the information is used to analyze future funding requests, he continued, the school system could be at risk at not receiving plan approval for any project funding.

Where Thornton's concern stems from is how the master plan may not reflect the reality of school construction prioritization and needs.

"It doesn't appear, to me at least, to be advisable," he said.

"The plan gives us flexibility," Brown said, as there are not exact dates for projects to begin.

He suggested that instead of a list where it might appear to have a certain order to projects, to submit the master plan in a different format, if that suited the board.

Board member Bob Frisch shared similar concerns about the order of schools on the master plan.

As presented to the board, modernization at Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School is listed first, though no priorities are indicated. Following is a new John Archer School, a replacement for Youth's Benefit Elementary, William Paca-Old Post road Elementary and Joppatowne High School addition and modernization.

Responding to a question from Frisch, Brown clarified that the order in the plan is simply a reflection of how the schools were ordered in the past.

Frisch asked if requesting funding from the state to build a whole new facility would impact the rest of the capital improvement funding they would receive for smaller projects.

"It depends on the amount of money they [the state] have to give out to all jurisdictions," Brown said.

After further discussion Thornton was still hesitant of expectation they various communities may have from this list.

"For me, it's just backwards to submit a list that we [the board] are not embracing fully," Thornton said, especially when groups, such as Build It Now, are being so vocal in their advocacy for a new school.

Brown noted that he and members of his staff will meet with the county executive's office in July to discuss a strategy they will use to solicit a company to do the scope study.

The school system and the county have different parameters when evaluating facilities, Frisch said. The board member wants to be sure the scope study includes everything the school system is looking for and needs.

Board president Leonard Wheeler said recent comments made by community members, referring to Build It Now, were "giving me pause as to the direction of this master plan" and wants to be sure "the interests and philosophy of the school system prevails."

He added that he doesn't want to give residents the impression that the board has already agreed to "a way of operation" as far as construction priorities.

Wheeler asked Brown to keep the board updated on the school system's meetings with the county.

Board vice president Rick Grambo, however, sees the master plan differently than his fellow members.

"I see a list that says we realize there's precious, limited funds and we're going to be very careful and very responsible [in using those funds]," he said. Grambo also expressed his confidence in the previous school boards that originally created and subsequently revised these various facility priority lists.

"This list was not created in the backroom somewhere based on who knows what," he said. "It will have meaning, hopefully, and won't be constantly second-guessed as we move forward."

Ultimately, the majority of the board approved the master plan for its submission to the state.

Thornton voted against the measure; board members Cassandra Beverley and Joseph Hau were not at the meeting.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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