Harford board weighs options for new Havre de Grace High

Members of the Harford County Board of Education raised several questions and concerns Monday night over a possible replacement of the current Havre de Grace High School building.

Those concerns, expressed at Monday's board meeting, include the project's estimated cost of $71 million and the need for a building with almost double the capacity of the existing one.

A scope study addressing the options of renovating, modernizing and or replacing the school was presented to the board for consideration Monday, the first step in what is sure to be a long road to an expanded school.

No decision was made on the superintendent's recommendation that the school system should proceed with the full replacement plan, the option favored by County Executive David Craig, who has all but forced the project on school officials, with the aid of some strong lobbying by Havre de Grace residents and city officials.

Last month, the board, with some admitted reluctance, agreed to make the Havre de Grace High project and a replacement building for Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston as its top priorities in the 2014 fiscal year capital budget. During the debate leading up to that vote, it was frequently noted by board members and others that there had been no definitive cost estimate presented, nor was there a basic plan in place for moving forward the HHS project.

Some light was shed on some of those earlier issues Monday, which in turn raised newer concerns.

The various construction options, presented by representatives of architectural firm Grimm and Parker, include a limited renovation project estimated at $47,864,312, two different options for modernization costing from $61,212,772 to $65,199,566 and a complete replacement of the school on a different site for an estimated $71,250,486.

If not totally replaced, the school would stay on the same site, with buildings sitting on either side of Congress Avenue.

The presented location for a replacement is where some athletic fields are west of Juniata Street and Lilly Run and east of the middle school. That's the location also favored by Craig, who has also raised the idea the newer auditorium and gymnasium building south of Congress Avenue could be repurposed into a performing arts center.

One modernization plan played with the idea of the town closing Congress Avenue completely to eliminate the issue of students crossing the street, which has been called dangerous. Though the street is closed during school days for the block occupied by the high school campus, city officials have been reluctant in the past to consider closing it for good.

All of the options would either make HHS a one-building campus or connect the two existing buildings to address ongoing concerns of security and program-based areas within the school.

The target capacity for any of the construction options presented ranges from 1,100 to 1,200 students. A complete replacement would accommodate 1,148 students with a square footage of 225,279. According to the HCPS website, 775 students are currently enrolled at HHS.

Board President Rick Grambo noted the dangers of Congress Avenue and students crossing it every day to get to the buildings on either side.

"Why is it not closed today?" he asked. "Why is it open at all if it's so dangerous?"

While closing Congress Avenue for one modernization plan would require city approval, Grambo commented, "I'm sure they [city officials] can come up with something and tell us they can close Congress Avenue."

Board member Thomas Fitzpatrick, a Havre de Grace resident, voiced his concerns about putting a new school close to the Amrak's main line tracks, where passenger trains travel in excess of 100 mph.

David Strang, with Grimm and Parker, said he worked on the development of the new Edgewood High School, which encountered a similar problem with the same railroad tracks, just behind the new school's football stadium.

The final plan would maximize the distance form the school and tracks, he continued, and the noise level in comparison to what it currently is at the school would be looked into. The existing HHS classroom building is about two blocks from the tracks.

Board member Bob Frisch questioned if having a building capacity of more than 1,100 students is necessary when enrollment at HHS has remained steady for years and is projected to possibly decline by 2020.

He asked if the capacity is "unrealistic" and suggested building a smaller school would save in costs.

With enrollment at several Harford high schools under capacity, such as Edgewood, Joppatowne and Fallston, Frisch said, "it's hard to sell that not only to the board, it's hard to sell to the county council and it's hard to sell to the citizens," who, he noted, are ultimately going to pay for it.

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