Harford replacement school projects

Harford County Public Schools officials recently got the go-ahead to begin design planning for a new combination high and middle school to be built on the site of the existing Havre de Grace Middle School, above. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, The Aegis / March 13, 2014)

The plan to build a combination middle and high school in Havre de Grace cleared a major hurdle recently when the state agency that oversees local school construction projects gave Harford County school officials authority to initiate planning for the new school.

It is likely to take a year or more to get to the stage where ground is actually broken, however, and another two to three years for construction, and all that is still contingent on money being available, a top Harford school official says.

Residents of Fallston, who are looking forward to construction beginning sometime this summer on their community's new elementary school, know the pain of waiting - it's been more than a decade since they began pushing in earnest to replace the aging Youth's Benefit Elementary School.

Supporters of the Havre de Grace project hope their wait will be shorter. Considering that the push to get the project even considered by county and school officials didn't even start until 2011, the project has come a long way in less than three years.

"The clock starts ticking once funding is actually in hand," Joe Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, said when asked about a timetable for the Havre de Grace project.

Thus far, Harford school officials have identified the site for the new school: the middle school grounds off Lewis Lane.

They also know what kind of school they will build: It will be a single facility for middle and high school students, with shared common spaces such as the gym, cafeteria and media center, Licata explained in an e-mail last week.

There is precedence for a shared facility. Patterson Mill High and Middle School south of Bel Air, which opened in 2007, is a combination secondary school with separate classrooms and shared common areas.

Licata said planning funds for the Havre de Grace project should be available from the county when the next fiscal year begins this July 1.

"We will begin the process of developing educational specifications [program requirements] of the school, then proceed to the design of the facility, which will take about one year," he continued. "This fall, we will seek construction funding from the state and county, to be available by July of 2015."

Licata also said part of the planning process will be to review the plan for the Patterson Mill school, as well as those for other recent high school designs, "as well as an update to the program requirements" from the state.

The approved Harford County capital budget for this fiscal year includes $3.7 million appropriated toward the Havre de Grace High School replacement project; $250,000 was appropriated three years ago for a basic feasibility study.

The total cost estimate for the project in the county capital budget is $77.3 million; however, it isn't clear if that was made before the decision was made to build a combination school. Typically, around 40 percent of the cost is covered by the state.

The last two secondary schools built in the county were the replacements for Bel Air and Edgewood High schools that cost $81.1 million and $83.4 million, respectively. Bel Air High was completed in 2009 and Edgewood High in 2010, so the HHS project still could be markedly higher than either for a variety of reasons, including inflation affecting materials and labor or unforeseen issues with the site.

Licata said the final design of the Havre de Grace project will take at least a year from this summer, then at least two to three years to build and occupy - depending again on funding availability.

One decision needed in the planning process is how big a school to build. Licata said Thursday the proposed capacity for the new school has been initially established at 1,300 students, "based on the out-year enrollment projections for the current middle school and high school."

"However," he continued, "as the educational specifications are developed and the determination of a magnet/signature program, etc., are determined, the actual capacity will be finalized."

Opened in 1967, Havre de Grace Middle, the county's oldest middle school building, has a capacity of 775 students and a current school year enrollment of 545 students, according to the school system.

Havre de Grace High, whose oldest of two buildings will turn 60 next year, has a capacity of 850 students and a current school year enrollment of 585.

During the planning process for Patterson Mill, it was decided to build a combination school, but with the expectations that a second building could be built on the site if enrollment growth dictated it. The total cost of the project was $62.7 million, according to Licata.

A key reason why county officials opted for the combo approach was finances. To speed up the process, the county forwards funded construction, using its own funds instead of waiting for the state to commit to a share of the cost. After the school opened, the county sought and eventually received some reimbursement from the state.

Patterson Mill Middle has a capacity of 733 students and an enrollment of 685, according to HCPS. The high school has a capacity of 1,030 students and an enrollment of 922.

Youth's Benefit update

In recent weeks, the State Interagency on School Construction and Maryland Board of Public Works committed at least $5.6 million toward the Youth's Benefit replacement project, contingent on final state budget approval this winter.

School officials estimate the total project cost will be in the $45 million range, including furnishings. The county has appropriated $15 million for the project, but has not yet borrowed any money for its share.

Licata said last week the design for the 149,000-square-foot school "is in the final stages of completion" and is being revised "based on new standards and codes."

The project is still expected to go to bid this summer, Licata said.

A community input meeting for the Youth's Benefit site plan was held at the school on Feb. 24. The meeting had been originally scheduled for Feb. 3 but was postponed because of snow and ice that evening.

According to information school officials supplied at the meeting, the three-phase project, in which the new school will be constructed on two levels around and over the two existing buildings on the site, is expected to be completed by the fall of 2017.

The completed replacement school will have a capacity for 1,130 students, considerably larger than the current capacity for 890 students. Enrollment at Youth's Benefit is 962 students, according to HCPS.

The site plan for the new school requires considerable space for stormwater management. According to minutes from the community input meeting, concerns were expressed about having adequate parking. There are 190 parking spaces planned, 30 more than what exist on the site now.

School officials said it would not be feasible to construct additional parking "for occasional peak use," according to the minutes. They were also asked about provisions for future expansion of the building and answered that the size of the gym, cafeteria and auditorium are based on state educational specifications.

Questions were also raised about the loss of play fields. On the new site plan, the existing baseball diamond on the front of the site will be eliminated. School officials said they are trying to make arrangements with the county to build a new diamond on the adjacent Fallston Recreation Complex.

The site plan for the new Youth's Benefit school will next be reviewed by the county Development Advisory Committee on Wednesday, April 2, at 9 a.m. in the second floor conference room of the county office building, 220 S. Main St. in Bel Air. The meeting is open to the public.