Patterson Mill High is one of four high schools rebuilt or replaced in Harford County between 2001 and 2011. A county council commission that spent the past two years studying the county's $300 million school construction program said the program needs more cooperation and collaboration at the state and county levels. (Aegis file photo, Patuxent Publishing / September 23, 2008)

Harford County's $300 million school construction program needs more cooperation and collaboration at the state and county levels, according to a county council commission that spent the past two years studying the program.

Harford County's $300 million school construction program needs more cooperation and collaboration at the state and county levels, according to a county council commission that spent the past two years studying the program.

The panel, named the Bi-Partisan Commission on School Construction, also concluded that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the physical facilities and the education the county's 38,000 public school children receive and said it observed "what appears to be a disparity among school facilities."

"This presumed disparity is believed to be affecting the variety of curricular programming that can be offered at particular schools within our county school system," says the commission's final report. "While we understand that within a school system differences will occur, we note that some of our aging facilities continue to be overlooked and that some communities seem to lack a variety of higher level programs."


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To implement a more coordinated approach to planning and funding decisions — the chairman called the current process "mind numbing" — the panel recommended creating a multi-jurisdictional board to oversee the county's school construction program.

The report also calls for reform in the state government's laws and rules covering school construction funding.

To view a PowerPoint presentation on the commission's report, click here.

The county council created the commission in December 2009 in the wake of the controversy over the council's decision to bypass the school system's earlier decision to build a new elementary school east of Bel Air in Campus Hills and to instead fund, and hence build, a school on the north side of Bel Air. That school, Red Pump Elementary, opened in August.

County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti chaired the commission. Other members were Councilman Richard Slutzky, Del. Susan McComas, State Sen. J.B. Jennings, board of education members Donald Osman and John Smilko — both who have since left the board — and former county treasurer John Scotten.

In presenting the commission's report to the county council at its Nov. 8 legislative session, Lisanti said the county and state lack a comprehensive funding process for school construction and called the current trifurcated system "complex, convoluted…in many cases [it] doesn't make a lot of sense."

Slutzky said the commission had a "huge task" in sorting through the competing policies and laws governing the process.

Lisanti noted that the state has used the same basic funding model for 40 years and has been steadily reducing the percentage it will pay for local school construction projects. She pointed out that the budget cycles for the Interagency Committee on School Construction are different from those in most counties, including Harford's.

The situation, she said, has forced some counties, including Harford, to forward fund some of their most critical school construction needs, borrowing money to build new schools with no guarantee there will be future state reimbursement.

When such reimbursement does occur, she added, the money is sent directly to the school system, not to the county, even though it's the county that owes the money on the bonds it sold to build the project.

In addition to calling for changes in the state's budget and reimbursement cycles, the report calls for an end to situations where the local school boards, which are state agencies, have the final say on priorities for school construction funding requests sent to the state, regardless of what the county elected officials decide they are willing to fund — not unlike what happened in the Red Pump controversy.

County owes $262 million

According to financial reports that were appended to the commission report, Harford owed $262,449,536 in principal and interest on its school construction debt at the beginning of the 2010-11 budget year, with the final payment to occur in 2030. Of the total, $187,119,647 is principal and $75,329,888 is interest. Some, but not all, of that debt will be paid down once all the state reimbursements for the projects involved have finally been received.

But, as the report also notes, Harford has a number of pressing needs with regard to aging school buildings that are badly in need of upgrades. Moreover, several revenue sources that the county dedicates specifically to pay down school construction debt are directly tied to the real estate/land development industry, all of which have plummeted during the recession.

For example, the county's property recordation tax revenue dedicated to school construction peaked at $16 million in the 2006 budget year, but fell to $6 million in 2009, about the level it had been in 2001. The property transfer tax, which peaked at more than $12 million in 2006, fell back to about $4.5 million in 2009, also where it had been in 2001.

Revenue generated by a controversial impact fee that took effect in the 2006 budget — essentially a tax on each new housing unit to be used for school construction — has never lived up to expectations, as many critics warned would happen, generating a high of $4.5 million in 2007 but falling below $2.5 million in 2009 (the tax rates were also lowered during this period).