Harford school board keeps two Fallston school projects as top priority

After considerable debate Monday night, members of the Harford County Board of Education approved the school system's overall Capital Improvement Plan for the 2015 fiscal year, one that continues to give top priority to two Fallston area school projects and also places more emphasis on security at some older elementary schools.

The first priority in the plan is the replacement of the heating, air conditioning and ventilation system at the 35-year-old Fallston High School, an $18 million project with the second half of funding covered in 2015.

Second priority is the replacement of the two aging buildings on the Youth's Benefit Elementary School campus in Fallston, a project expected to cost in excess of $42 million, with a combination of $18 million in state and county funding sought for 2015. Both Fallston projects elicited few comments from board members.

At the center of a two-hour debate on the new capital plan were the priority of a Havre de Grace High School replacement building and the need to enclose so-called open classrooms at a handful of older elementary schools for security reasons.

The board approved a study for the Havre de Grace High project, which moves the project to the next level, but not before discussing whether it should be put in the local and state funding pipeline at a time when school officials are setting aside tens of millions of dollars for other capital projects, such as replacing Youths' Benefit Elementary School in Fallston and upgrades to Fallston High School.

"In good faith, it would be very difficult for me to vote in the affirmative to include Havre de Grace in this list, and I think there's been a little bit of dancing here in terms of where we are," board member James Thornton said.

The 2015 Capital Improvement Plan includes a request to the state for local planning approval for the Havre de Grace High replacement.

Approval would allow Harford County officials to commence with the planning process. Officials estimate the total project cost will be $77.2 million, and the county government has already appropriated $3.95 million for engineering and design, according to CIP worksheets.

The scope study for the project was developed with input from Havre de Grace High teachers and administrators, county school officials and community representatives, who worked with representatives of the architectural firm Grimm & Parker of Calverton.

The school board reviewed the scope study during meetings in November and December of 2012, but twice voted to delay making a final decision, citing the need to obtain more information and to consider sites other than the existing property along Juniata Street.

Harford County Executive David Craig, a Havre de Grace native, has suggested a portion of the Havre de Grace Middle School property would be the ideal location for a replacement high school.

The current high school is on Juniata Street, and the property is bisected by Congress Avenue, forcing students to cross Congress to get to and from the buildings; students must also cross Juniata to get to the athletic fields.

During Monday's meeting, Thornton, along with fellow board members Robert Frisch and Joseph Hau, voted against approving the scope study "as presented," with the option of replacing the current Havre de Grace High School, originally built in the 1950s, with a new facility serving 1,000 Havre de Grace-area middle and high school students, plus magnet program students drawn from throughout Harford County.

The motion was approved, 6-3, however, with members Thomas Fitzpatrick, Cassandra Beverley, Alysson Krchnavy, Arthur Kaff, board President Nancy Reynolds and Student Representative Ben Barsam casting "yes" votes. Board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo was absent Monday.

The Havre de Grace High project was placed as the fourth priority in a 44-item list, and Hau said he is concerned it could become a lower priority as county officials develop their own facilities master plan which also encompasses government buildings, as well as school.

Frisch noted the middle school property is close to a freight and passenger rail line that cuts through the city. He said federal officials are working to replace the railroad line's bridge over the Susquehanna River as Amtrak passenger ridership continues to grow.

Frisch said he is concerned about the potential for a derailment so close to a school.

Additional state and local funds will not automatically be committed if local planning is approved, and Fitzpatrick noted the project could end up "on the shelf with an approved scope study."

"Your decision tonight does not set the priority," Cornell Brown, assistant director of facilities for the school system, told the board.

Craig agrees

Craig said Tuesday morning that the school board members "made the right move."

"I thought the concept of looking at the Havre de Grace High School/Middle School project was [correct], and I thought they made the right decision," he said.

The county executive noted having the middle and high school students in one location would create "more of a campus," and prevent students from having to cross streets to get to various buildings and facilities.

Craig, a graduate of Havre de Grace, said the school served grades 7 to 12 when he was there in the 1960s.

"[Grades] 6-12 is not a whole lot different than when I was there," he said.

He also said the railroad bridge project might not be completed for decades, as officials weigh design and cost issues. He also noted structures in the Lewis Lane area are father away from the tracks than they appear and, by law, must be a certain distance from rail lines

"They are looking at a project that is in the billion-dollar range," Craig said of the bridge replacement.

Security and technology

School board members also spent a considerable portion their meeting discussing the prospect of moving funds from line items in the CIP for heating and air conditioning system replacement projects at various schools, to fully fund the enclosure of "open classrooms" in five elementary schools for security purposes.

A $21.8 million line item for technology infrastructure had a No. 13 priority, but the board approved moving it up to No. 11, thus placing it above a $450,000 line item to fund enclosing open classrooms to enhance security at William S. James Elementary School in Abingdon. Classrooms in the 1970s era facility, a so-called "open space school," are not enclosed.

"I think it is so vital to the instructional success of our schools," Reynolds said of the technology infrastructure funding, which includes purchasing new hardware to support the implementation of Common Core State Standards, and electronic PARCC testing, as well as putting wi-fi service in all schools, and general upgrades to the school system's technology hardware, software and network.

Beverley and Frisch said they were unhappy school security had been pushed down the list.

When asked about other elementary schools with open classrooms, Brown said Bel Air, William Paca-Old Post Road, North Harford and Prospect Mill also have classrooms without walls.

Board members then approved amendments to shift several million dollars from school HVAC replacement line items to secure all five elementary schools.

The final amended Capital Improvement Program passed 5-4. Fitzpatrick, Krchnavy, Reynolds, Beverley and Kaff voted in favor, and Thornton, Hau, Frisch and Barsam voted against.

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