Commentary: Kids are lowest priority in Harford school construction decisions

It should have come as no surprise when members of the Harford County Board of Education balked recently at deciding how to approach replacing or renovating the Havre de Grace High School physical plant.

Left to its own devices, there's little doubt the board wouldn't be having this debate at all; however, this is 2009, not 2012.

Back then, the board was shifting its future school construction priorities among the need for new buildings at three elementary schools: Youth's Benefit in Fallston, William Paca/Old Post Road in Abingdon and Homestead-Wakefield in Bel Air, as well as the need to build a replacement for John Archer School which serves special needs students.

A lot has transpired politically since, including an almost complete turnover of the school board, which has also been expanded in membership and is the process of seeing a majority of its members elected by voters, rather than appointed by the governor. There's also been turnover at the top of the school administration with the sudden death of then-superintendent Jacqueline Haas in late 2008 and the hiring of her successor, Robert Tomback, in mid-2009.

Also thrown into the political mix is the decision by the Harford County Council in 2009 to overturn Mrs. Haas' plan, which had the support of County Executive David Craig, to build a new elementary school out near Harford Community College, instead of one on the Red Pump Road property the school system owned north of Bel Air. Essentially the council, for whatever motivation – to satisfy the needs of certain developers or because it really believed the Red Pump site was better suited cost-wise (you pick) – said to school officials (and indirectly to Craig), "If you want a school, you'll build it where we tell you, or we won't give you the money to build it."

Legally, the council was within its right and, though Craig could have certainly refused to submit the funding in the first place, the county executive went along. There were too many overcrowded elementary schools in the Bel Air area and, frankly, there were clear indications affected parents didn't give a damn where the new school was located, as long as one was built within three or four miles of Bel Air.

A few months before Red Pump Elementary opened in late summer 2011, Craig began talking about replacing the high school buildings at Havre de Grace, his alma mater.

When he first explained it to me, the idea made some sense: the county had just come through a decade where it replaced all its high school buildings constructed in the early 1950s (North Harford, Bel Air and Edgewood) except Havre de Grace whose main classroom building opened in 1955. Moreover, Havre de Grace is the only secondary school in the county where activities are conducted in two buildings, which poses all kinds of security issues in our contemporary world. Finally, with the first of the 1970s high schools about to turn 40 (Joppatowne did this year), the longer nothing was done about Havre de Grace, the county's smallest high school, the greater the prospect other projects would continue to be pushed ahead of it. With Craig heading into the final years of his tenure as county executive, he couldn't be certain his successor would be inclined to advocate on behalf of HHS.

School officials initially refused to even consider funding a new HHS, as did the county council, but Craig reminded both that, as county executive, he could refuse to put funds for any school project in the budget and neither could do anything about it. The school board seemed to capitulate first, setting up a future capital program earlier this fall that places Havre de Grace on par with Youth's Benefit, while pushing the other elementary school replacement projects off into the future, exactly the way Craig said he wanted it.

Regardless of how quickly the school board moves in picking the replacement alternative Craig favors on the west side of Juniata Street, and it's my guess is they'll stall the final plan approval as long as they can, we also haven't heard the final word from the county council about its support for a new HHS. As from the Red Pump example above, it is still the council that ultimately controls the purse strings. Rest assured, deals will be made, if they haven't already.

Last week, Craig issued his bucket list for the final two years of his term, and here's what his news release said about school construction:

"With respect to public education, the county executive is proposing school construction projects for Youth's Benefit Elementary, Havre de Grace High School, William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary, and Joppatowne High School. Additionally the county executive is seeking athletic field improvements for Aberdeen High School, as well as Joppatowne High, Fallston High, and Patterson Mill High Schools."

Notice that nothing was mentioned about either Homestead-Wakefield or John Archer.

As someone who has frequently criticized the county executive for his spendthrift ways, I think Craig has made a good case for a new HHS - even at a cost of $90 million. But, those who say new buildings are needed at H-W and William Paca/Old Post Road are also right, and the John Archer project comes with state and federal mandates to move the school that can't be ignored forever. I'm a little more skeptical of the Youth's Benefit plan, but only because I can't see how you justify spending another $50 million or so at that site, which does not have public water and sewer, when there's a distinct possibility the day will come when the kids can't drink the water or flush the toilet?

Regardless of what gets built and when, Harford has some serious school construction needs that will persist for many years to come. With this in mind, it's time for the school board, county executive and county council to jointly arrive at a reasonable schedule and financing plan for replacing and modernizing all these aging buildings.

It should be a plan that puts the kids – not personal agendas – first. If all three sides have to sign the plan in blood to get them to stick to it, bring on the knife.

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