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Harford panel calls for reform in school construction decision making, funding

ConservationBudgets and BudgetingPublic OfficialsLand Resources

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."

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).

'Technology gap'

In the period 2001-11, Harford replaced or completely rebuilt four high schools — Aberdeen, North Harford, Bel Air and Edgewood — and built a new high and middle school — Patterson Mill. It also replaced Deerfield Elementary in Edgewood, built a major addition to Joppatowne Elementary and built Red Pump Elementary.

But Lisanti noted the new construction has created what she called "a technology gap" between the new facilities and the older ones and, along with it, "a dichotomy in academic programming."

"Facility and staffing affect the level of curriculum," she said, echoing one of the report's conclusions. The resulting "turf wars," she added, have pitted school administrators against each other and parents against school officials.

As savvy parents zero in on magnet programs offered only at specific schools to send their children to the newest facilities with the most technology, Lisanti said, those magnet programs "have exacerbated this problem" between have and have-not schools.

$100 million needed

With regard to the aging school program cited in the commission's report, the county elected officials and the school system are on the verge of locking horns over priorities in dealing with future construction needs, many people close to both sides have said. Harford's state legislators also are likely to join the fray, since the projects involved are spread over several legislative districts.

Three elementary schools, Youth's Benefit in Fallston, William Paca/Old Post Road in Abingdon and Homestead-Wakefield in Bel Air, all of them two building schools with parts of their physical plants dating to the early 1950s, have problems ranging from water contaminated by lead plumbing at Youth's Benefit to an unreliable heating system at Old Post Road to dangerous playground conditions at Homestead-Wakefield, according to parents.

The school system also plans to replace the John Archer School for profound special needs children with a new school that is linked to a middle school. The plan calls for the building to be built adjacent to Bel Air Middle School.

According to the school system budget data appended to the bipartisan commission's report, the four replacement buildings have an estimated cost of $103.3 million.

In addition to those projects, lurking on the horizon are an upgrade needed for Joppatowne High School, which turns 40 next school year, and a rebuilding of a significant part of Havre de Grace High School, the latter a project being pushed by Harford County Executive David Craig, a graduate of the school, as is Lisanti.

'Public policy conflicts'

As she briefed her colleagues on her commission's report, Lisanti noted there are "public policy conflicts" over everything from how funding is provided for schools to how the state views school utilization as opposed to the county, with the former considering a school adequate even if its enrollment exceeds 20 percent of its capacity and the latter using a 110 percent utilization rate.

Lisanti added, however, that the state is constantly changing its utilization standards, while many of the school system's long-range facilities needs decisions are based upon enrollment projections that don't always hold true.

And, she noted, "In our own [county] charter there is no direct link between the budget and the capital improvement program."

In the end, she said, school construction is beset by "a complex funding process" that has become "so mind numbing."

"The process doesn't make sense to anyone, which clearly illustrates the necessity for changing our laws," Lisanti said.

Recommendations

The commission's seven recommendations are:

1 - The county council, county executive and delegation should collectively adopt a funding policy for our school system. This policy shall be the guiding principles for all capital funding decisions.

2 - The county council should enact legislation to require the establishment of a local Comprehensive Educational Facilities Master Plan. The plan should examine opportunities for joint uses by other public facility uses such as libraries, community centers and parks and recreation. Additionally, the plan should include criteria for evaluating facilities and priority ranking based on need and other related factors.

3 - Once an Educational Facilities Master Plan is complete, the county executive should appoint a funding committee to examine alternative funding sources for the 10-year-plan.

4 - The county council should examine budget policies and ensure equity of facilities and programming in our county school system. Applicable charter provisions should be reviewed to create a link between the [Capital Improvement Plan] and the adopted budget.

5 - The county council should consider establishing a Board of School Construction that annually receives a report of the facilities master plan and makes recommendations for funding priorities to the [state Interagency Committee which controls funding at that level]. The School Construction Board should have representation from the board of education, county executive, county council and the delegation."

6 - The county's land use plan should be expanded to include an element plan for public schools and/or public facilities. This important planning tool will assist in determining future school sites and will ensure consistency of land use, water and sewer utility policy."

7 - The delegation should work to reform state [Interagency Committee] funding policy concerning the following:

-Examine the congruency of the budget cycle;

-The criteria for funding school construction;

-Require facilities master planning;

-Require project concurrence by the county executive and county council before the board of education can request funding from the IAC; and

-Redirect state reimbursement to the county government.

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