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Editorial: School construction selection process is broken

Editorial from The Aegis

5:42 PM EDT, September 13, 2012

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As communities in Harford County have begun squaring off to push for rebuilding one or another school, members of the Harford County Board of Education have begun to lament what they're calling a broken and politicized process for setting school construction priorities.

At odds with each other this time around are communities on opposite sides of the county, geographically and demographically. Havre de Grace, which remains largely working class despite a substantial increase in high-end housing, is lobbying hard for the rebuilding of Havre de Grace High School; Fallston, which has among the most affluent communities in Harford County, is pushing hard for the rebuilding of Youth's Benefit Elementary School.

There are solid arguments for rebuilding both schools and, indeed, people in both communities have said they would prefer both schools be rebuilt at the same time. If it comes down to one or the other, though, each community is pushing for its school to be first.

Calling the process for deciding which school gets built first, should it come to that, "broken," school board member James Thornton said Monday at a meeting: "What has evolved here is a very political process, and there is an elephant in the room and we don't really want to talk about the fact that as a board, we are compromised."

He's absolutely right about both the process being broken and about it having become highly politicized.

The reason the process is broken is because what was in place for years wasn't very good to start with. For a generation, school construction priorities were firmly set before being revealed to the public. In those times, school board members were appointed and there was no hint that would ever change. Elected officials from the county serving in the state legislature, on the county council and in the county executive's office often worked behind the scenes to secure and coordinate state and county funding for one or another school. Similarly, while school board appointments were made by the governor, key elected officials were consulted to decide who would get those appointments. In other words, the people who had a weighted say in the appointment of school board members also had a weighted say in school construction priorities, essentially writing school board members out of the decision-making process on school construction.

School construction costs are shared by the state and county governments, based on formulas that change as the game is played. This makes the process of setting construction priorities a political horse-trader's dream. It all went down relatively quietly, though, so instances where strong and vocal contingents from two competing communities showed up at a school board meeting were rare.

The big change came before the economy tanked in 2008 when the school system was poised to build two new elementary schools. One of those schools is the one that became Red Pump Elementary. The other was to have been built in the Campus Hills area near Prospect Mill Elementary, then the most overcrowded school in the county. Its entire fifth grade class was being shipped to Southampton Middle School.

When the state and county started to feel the financial pinch, it became clear there would be money for only one school and the school system opted for building the school that would ease crowding at Prospect Mill, namely the Campus Hills school.

That's when things changed. In the immediate aftermath of the unanticipated death of Superintendent Jacqueline Haas, the county council forced its way into the process. Led by Councilman Dick Slutzky, the council pushed the school system to build the Red Pump school first. Though it was never acknowledged, it was clear then, and has become more evident since, that the Red Pump school would clear the way for residential development in the most profitable residential real estate market in the county. Developers, not coincidentally, are big campaign spenders, notably in county council races.

Thus, a public policy decision was made to spend millions on a very nice new school in the Bel Air-Fallston real estate market, rather than where it was more sorely needed in the Campus Hills-Churchville market, to clear the way for a few thousand in campaign contributions.

If that's not a broken process, it would be hard to find an example of one.

Flash forward to the emerging debate over Havre de Grace High vs. Youth's Benefit Elementary, and the political jockeying is as complex as ever, except now the public has gotten involved. The public involvement is perhaps the messiest part of the situation, at least if you're from the old school of setting school construction priorities quietly behind the scenes.

The harsh reality is there has never been a time when deciding which schools get built when was done by a sage group of well-informed, highly-educated people whose intentions were as pure as the driven snow. The process always has been a political one, though largely orchestrated out of the public's view, but in a way that paid a measure of lip service to the notion of building where the need was greatest.

That process — which wasn't particularly healthy in the first place because of its secrecy — broke when the Red Pump school was built to give greater consideration to campaign finances than to need based on enrollment and population.

Things have changed substantially since that decision. The school board is moving to one dominated by elected, rather than appointed, members, so it is less beholden to those who are well-connected in the governor's office, and more beholden to the public. The state-county funding wheel of fortune remains a key part of the game, but there also has been a change in the state superintendent's office. And there's the matter of the public in the affected communities being involved early in the process.

So long as the community activists remain engaged in devising which school gets built when, there's a chance a more open, and fair, process will emerge from the wreckage of the one that was broken for the sake of some campaign considerations.

Unfortunately, there's no guarantee.