About 150 Harford County residents, many of them advocating for new school buildings in Fallston, Havre de Grace and Abingdon, packed a Harford County Board of Education hearing in Bel Air Monday night.
A number of local elected officials also attended the hearing, whose purpose was to give the school board members public input about new school construction needs and priorities for the 2014 fiscal year capital improvements program.
Members of Build It Now, a community organization advocating for new Youth's Benefit and William Paca elementary school buildings in Fallston and Abingdon, respectively, as well as other school renovation projects, were recognizable by their signature green shirts.
Supporters of a new Havre de Grace High School were also easy to identify from their school color maroon and white shirts.
Two young people stood outside the board room handing out buttons for the two sides. "It's our turn" buttons were given out for Havre de Grace High School and "Build It Now YBES" went to Youth's Benefit supporters.
Board of Education members didn't sit on their dais as usual, but were in the audience. Former Board of Education member and retired Havre de Grace High teacher Don Osman sat with other Havre de Grace High School supporters. Among the elected officials present were County Councilman Joe Woods, who represents Fallston and Abingdon; State Sen. Barry Glassman, a Havre de Grace High graduate; Havre de Grace City Council President Randy Craig; and Havre de Grace City Councilman David Glenn.
Before public comment began, Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent of operations, explained the capital improvement program to the eager crowd and the factors that impact the school system's decisions.
Brown made note of the current priorities in the capital program, which are new heating ventilation and air condition, or HVAC, systems for Magnolia Middle, North Harford Elementary and Norrisville Elementary schools, a roof replacement for George D. Lisby Elementary School and stadium upgrades at Joppatowne High School.
Brown said the board is expected to take final action during its Sept. 24 meeting to adopt a capital budget that can then advance to the state for consideration.
What Harford's leaders have to say
The politicians spoke first.
County government spokesman Bob Thomas read a letter from County Executive David Craig advising the board to fund his school priorities. The full text is published on Page A12.
Craig wrote he plans to include new buildings for Havre de Grace High School and Youth's Benefit Elementary School in the county's fiscal year 2014 capital budget and new buildings for William Paca/Old Post Road and Homestead-Wakefield elementary schools in the 2016 budget.
City Councilman Randy Craig, who is David Craig's son and, like the county executive, is a Havre de Grace High graduate, also advocated for a new high school in his city.
As an elected official, Randy Craig said, he and other representatives have the "responsibility to protect the health, safety, welfare and quality of life for its residents."
Glenn said there are safety concerns with the school because of the two buildings on the campus, which is separated by Congress Avenue, and one building remaining unlocked.
"We can no longer afford to take that risk," he said.
Glassman, who is expected to run for county executive in 2014, said he wasn't there to tell the school board "how and where to place these schools on the project list because that's your job and I respect that."
Glassman, however, urged the board to come up with a "predictable" capital improvement program that the state "can fund over time."
He added that whatever the board decides to go with as far as school construction, he and the other Harford County legislators will support them and work to secure state funding.
"We can do these schools," Glassman said referring to those mentioned in David Craig's letter, "but we've got to think about them and plot them out" in order to get funding.
He also suggested that one project be put first on the program before being sent to the state so the county legislators have something to work toward.
"Every year one project is not on there," Glassman said, explaining that "it puts us at a disadvantage" when funding arises.
Woods asked the board to "not only consider Youth's Benefit Elementary School in the capital improvement program, but make it happen."
The case for Havre de Grace High School
Deanna Smith, of Havre de Grace, commented how "fabulous" it was to see people speaking up for their communities.
The Meadowvale Elementary PTA president passed out a chart to board members and other school system officials showing when all the schools in the county were built, renovated, modernized and/or rebuilt.
She said she was surprised to find out that the main building at Havre de Grace High was the fifth school in the county to be built in 1955 and has had only had one renovation since, in 1983.
"Thirty years worth of no activity for our kids and classrooms to benefit," Smith said. "We firmly believe that it is our turn."
Monique Watson, who is entering her senior year at Havre de Grace High and is 2013 class president, said she wanted to bring "a view from the kids, not just the parents" and to put an emphasis "on how we feel."
She said the consensus of the students is that the school is "kind of grimy" and "the toilet water is yellow and nobody has gone in it yet."
Monique added that nobody wants to drink from the water fountains because the water tastes bad.
The student said she hopes that her kids won't be in the same building where she and her mother went to school.
Cathy Vincenti, executive director of the Havre de Grace Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of the business community supporting a new high school.
If a new high school isn't built soon, Vincenti said, "we become the old saying, 'A nice place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live there.'"
"Don't be a part of holding back the growth of Havre de Grace," she told the board.
Debbie Frick, Havre de Grace Middle School PTSA president, also talked about safety concerns at the school.
Congress Avenue is closed during the school day, Frick said, but reopens for traffic at the end of the day's classes, even when students are still crossing to get to the other side of campus.
There have been "near misses," she said, because kids forget the road has been reopened. In addition, Juniata Street goes right by the school and is not closed during the day. The school's athletic fields are on the opposite side of Juniata Street.
"[The roads are] very dangerous for our students," Frick added.
Richard Hauf, a 20-year teacher at Havre de Grace High, said the magnet programs offered at other high schools in the county create competition among high schools for students; however, he added, the playing field isn't level.
"How are we, the oldest high school in Harford County, to compete?" Hauf asked. "Unfortunately, we haven't been able to."
The teacher said 30 Havre de Grace Middle School eighth graders don't go onto Havre de Grace High every year because they choose a magnet program elsewhere in the county.
Hauf said these programs are taking "some of our brightest, some of our best" students away from the community.
The case for Youth's Benefit Elementary School
Sandy Boyd, who wore an "I [heart] YBES gators" shirt, has a daughter going into the third grade and another child going into the first grade at the Fallston school.
She said the computer lab where she used to volunteer was taken away to become a classroom and another lab hasn't been installed.
Boyd said she has seen students sit around with buckets on the floor to catch water from leaking ceilings and said there have been efforts to keep kids from using the bathrooms some days because of the lead in the water.
"It's disturbing with our little ones," she said, adding that it is "unjust" to be told for 16 years a new school is coming, but nothing has happened.
"We're shovel ready," she said.
Beth Poggioli, who's been advocating for a new Youth's Benefit for more than a year, said the school is "in a serious state of disrepair.
Poggioli, who is vice president of the school's PTA, said at a glance the school looks "presentable," but explained the outward appearance should be attributed to the custodial staff.
Look beneath the surface, she continued, and one will find a crumbling infrastructure, failing boilers, lack of technology, leaking roof and lack of space.
"[I] witnessed the removal of water fountains because of the lead," said Poggioli, who is also president of the Greater Fallston Association. "It's the right time now."
"The challenges of our school are overwhelming," said Stephanie Flasch, a Youth's Benefit parent. "Coordinating one elementary between multiple buildings is challenging."
Flasch said one of her sons played the lead role in the school's production of "Beauty and the Beast" last school year, but her younger son couldn't watch because kindergartners and first graders didn't attend because of the lack of space.
Hilary Jenkins-Spangler, another Youth's Benefit mother, became emotional when speaking about her son with special needs.
She commented how there are so many distractions in the classrooms, including movable furniture, that it makes it hard for the kids to focus.
"It makes it more challenging," Jenkins-Spangler said about her son learning. "Our children deserve better."