Harford school building priorities

The Harford County Council, county executive and county Board of Education can't agree among themselves what schools should receive priority for building replacement. County Executive Dvid Craig's proposal to replace Havre de Grace High School was rejected by the council members last month, a majority saying Craig shouldn't be making those decisions unilaterally. (Harford County Public Schools, Patuxent Homestead / June 6, 2012)

The Harford County Council criticized County Executive David Craig last month for making the Havre de Grace High School replacement building a priority in the county's school construction needs and in turn removed funding for the project from future capital budgets.

The county executive fired back by arguing the high school is desperately in need of improvement, even though a number of other school renovation and replacement projects in the county had been on the priority list much longer.

The 2013 county budget review process ended with no resolution of the impasse regarding a new HHS. It also raised anew the question of just who is responsible for setting school construction priorities in Harford?

The council may have been critical of Craig's role in boosting the HHS project, but it was the council that ordered the school system in 2009 to build a new elementary school at the Red Pump site north of Bel Air, rather than use a site at Campus Hills favored by school officials. Craig had initially sided with the school system on the Campus Hills location, but the council threatened not to fund the project, and the school was eventually built at the Red Pump site.

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While the county executive and county council postured over Havre de Grace High and who is in charge on their end, the Harford County Board of Education also recently discussed starting a study this summer to determine what schools should be prioritized for construction.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace, said she doesn't believe the county should wait for such a study.

"I don't think that's advisable, from my perspective. I think we need to move forward with the funding commitments that have been made," Lisanti, who like Craig is an HHS alumnus, said shortly after the tiff between the council and Craig on the HHS project.

Old priorities

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Cornell S. Brown said he believes Homestead/Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air, the John Archer School for students with special needs, William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon, Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston and Joppatowne High School had all been on the school system's list to be rebuilt, before Craig announced in early 2011 that he wanted Havre de Grace High considered for replacement.

Brown also mentioned that the older of the two Homestead/Wakefield buildings is most likely first to be replaced, since that needs to be done to make room for the new John Archer school, which is due to move to the Homestead/Wakefield campus.

The last time a similar building priorities study was done, Brown said, it was a 12-month contract, so this study may take as long if not longer.

Last month, the county council voted to remove funding for years 2014 to 2016 to replace Havre de Grace High School from Craig's 2013 capital budget, and criticized the county executive for unilaterally revising the school priority list.

Craig fired back by threatening not to fund any school projects for the next three years, if the HHS funding and his other school priorities aren't left intact.

Not long after the dispute flared, school board member Bob Frisch said the board does hope its planned study clarifies what projects should go forward. He also said that means any project could be on the table for discussion and, ultimately, for funding.

Frisch added that the council members have made it clear they will not move forward with supporting any local funding for future school projects like HHS unless the state gets involved and contributes.

"I think most of us were of the opinion that we were going to wait," Frisch said. "I thought the whole idea of the study was to give a comprehensive evaluation of all facilities, and just as priorities have changed in the past, that doesn't mean that priorities couldn't change again. But at least we would have an independent voice giving a recommendation."

Frisch said he does not think the different parties involved are necessarily at odds with each other.

"I don't think anybody is trying to pick a fight. I think it's a matter of everyone getting on the same page," he said.

'Ultimate authority'

Council President Billy Boniface later clarified that the council did not take anything out of the budget concerning Havre de Grace High School but merely changed a required resolution dealing with the county's capital program – essentially a symbolic move at this point.