The Harford County Board of Education, still reeling from the sudden death two weeks ago of Dr. Leonard Wheeler, its president, and trying to quell public angst over which community gets the next new school, decided Monday night to request funding for replacements of Youth's Benefit Elementary School and Havre de Grace High School in its fiscal year 2014 capital budget.

The final decision on what amounts to the most immediate school construction priorities came Monday night after much debate and emotional discussion among board members, as well as comments from several Fallston and Havre de Grace residents and residents from other communities that need new schools.

Also weighing heavily on the board as it acted Monday was the recent and sudden death of the board president. Before the capital plan was brought before the board, members paid tribute to the late Dr. Wheeler (Please see story, Page A 16).

Funding requests for the new schools were part of a total 2014 capital budget request of $59,836,479. Other projects in the plan include HVAC upgrades for Magnolia Middle School, Fallston High School, North Harford and Norrisville elementary schools, roof replacement for George D. Lisby Elementary School in Aberdeen, systemic improvements for Joppatowne High School, a computer lab for Edgewood Middle School and energy efficiency initiatives throughout the school system.

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A total of $26,844,052 is requested on the state level and $32,992,427 from the county.

School officials have been considering a replacement of the older of Youth's Benefit's two buildings for more than a decade, as they have likewise considered replacing aging buildings at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air and William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon.

The new Havre de Grace High School wasn't even on the school board's radar until about a year ago when Harford County Executive David Craig began letting it be known publicly he wanted consideration given to replacing the oldest of the county's 10 high school buildings.

Craig, an HHS graduate and lifelong resident of the city, will finish his final term as county executive in December 2014. His comments about building a new school began to take more weight this past spring, when the county executive warned members of the Harford County Council and school officials he would block any new county and school capital projects, if the HHS project was not given top priority in the county and school capital programs.

A difficult decision

Before the vote, school board members acknowledged the enormous community support they had seen thus far and assured everyone that the decision they were to make that night was not easy.

Newest board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said he had toured HHS and YBES, as well as Patterson Mill High School to compare the county's oldest schools to a newer one.

"It is quite real," he said about the differences between schools. "It is quite striking."

Cassandra Beverley addressed those in the audience and said she was "very impressed with the depth of research and documentation that all of you have provided in order to assist us in making this very difficult decision."

She added that she has read every letter and e-mail she received on the matter.

"We have listened intently and have done a thoughtful job of trying to go through all the pros and cons," Beverley said. "I hope that the community understands that no matter how the vote comes out we have heard all of you and value all of you and want the best for all the students in Harford County."

James Thornton added that he would remain objective in his vote and it would "not be an easy decision."

"I just love the fact that this room is packed," board member Alysson Krchnavy said. She added that she, too, has read every e-mail and has been "taking them under very serious consideration as we move forward."

Bob Frisch said the decision he would have to make that night was the "most difficult decision I think I have faced," adding that it has caused him many sleepless nights.

The decision, he continued, "has significance and it has long term implications for our school system and the communities that are here tonight and the ones that aren't here."

He urged everyone to not be discouraged and to continue to advocate for their school.