Harford school board needs to make 'tough decisions' with construction priorities, president says

"We're going to have to make some tough decisions with the priorities of the school system," Harford County Board of Education President Leonard Wheeler said Monday evening during a board business meeting.

Harford's school board took its first look at the capital improvement budget for fiscal year 2014, which will not include any new school construction or renovations until a comprehensive study has been completed, members said.

As a result, very little was said directly Monday about the growing controversy over school replacement decisions involving the school board and the county government.

Joe Licata, Chief of Administration for Harford County Public Schools, described the projects on the preliminary plan for 2014 as "place holders" for the final version.

He stressed that the school system won't know what funds will be available from the state or county until later in the process and, therefore, it must base estimates for future projects on what funding HCPS has received in previous years.

"There's been a question about the priorities," Licata said, pointing out that in order of priority Magnolia Middle School, North Harford Elementary School and Norrisville Elementary School HVAC systems are in the top three spots for the budget a year from now with no new construction on the list at all.

"As you know, we made a decision to do a study; [and] that study hasn't been completed yet," Licata said.

The board approved a comprehensive facilities master plan in June that was submitted to the state and can be discussed and revised for the next several months.

Board member Alysson Krchnavy asked Licata where the school system was in the process of finding a vendor to complete the study in partnership with the county procurement department.

The school system is hoping that it will have a company locked down sometime in the fall, Licata said, and it will take "a good year to do all pieces of the study we need to do."

Board member Cassandra Beverley questioned the possibility of more funds coming to the school system and how that could affect the fiscal year 2014 capital budget.

With funds coming from the state and local levels, Licata said, more becoming available could happen, but it's unlikely the state would offer a certain amount of money to the school system and ask if they could use it.

The county could provide funds for a particular project, he continued, and it would be up to the board to decide if that project is a priority.

The school board is caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war involving County Executive David Craig and the Harford County Council.

Craig has told the council and school officials he will not fund any new school projects in the next two county budgets (2014 and 2015) ,unless the replacement of Havre de Grace High School receives top priority. The council and school officials have consistently supported replacing one of four aging elementary schools around the county as a top priority, with the other three to follow.

The 2013 capital budget process ended with a stalemate on the school replacement projects and unless some sort of accord is reached among the three parties and Craig sticks to his guns on the HHS project being top priority for funding, the entire school capital planning process could be thrown into chaos.

Beverley also asked Licata if there is a difference between how much building a new elementary school costs in comparison to a middle or high school.

The cost per square foot of a new school is typically $225, Licata said, explaining many things influence the total cost of a school, regardless of the grade levels, including the size and components of a school, technology, the site – flat land versus on a hill, for instance – and environmental issues.

When it comes to state funding for a new school or renovations, Licata said that enrollment trends and areas of high attendance are looked at to determine the size and, therefore, the cost of a building.

For Fallston Middle School, he continued, HCPS tried for several years to get funding for a 900-student capacity school, but it took a few years for the state to agree.

In recent years, total public school enrollment in Harford County has been on a slow, steady decline. With the opening of Red Pump Elementary School last year and the building of Patterson Mill High and Middle School in the last decade, along with the replacement of existing high schools in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Edgewood and reconstruction of North Harford High, Harford has a surplus of seats at the elementary, high and middle school levels.

James Thornton, school board member, asked if the state designates schools to be modernized based on the age of a facility. Licata explained that it does and doesn't.

When replacing Aberdeen High School, he said, the scope study recommendation was to build a new building and abandon the old facilities.

HCPS negotiated with the state, Licata said, because the state felt it would've been more cost effective to renovate certain portions of the existing building rather than build a new one.

Eventually, the school system convinced the state, he said, that one new building was more economical and practical than two renovated existing buildings.

Havre de Grace's main classroom building is the oldest in the county by 17 years; however, the Joppatowne High building, which is the second oldest, will turn 40 at the start of the next school year, and there has been a call from JHS parents for major renovations.

Wheeler thanked Licata and his team for the presentation and said the board would have to determine "what is right" in regards to future construction priorities.

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