Harford school board calls prioritizing process 'broken'

Pleas for new school buildings, especially a new Havre de Grace High School, were the focus of Monday night's Harford County Board of Education meeting, while board members questioned the school construction process.

The board discussed amendments to its original request for the 2014 capital budget that would ask the state for $6.6 million toward Youth's Benefit Elementary and $3.7 million for Havre de Grace High School. A handful of Havre de Grace city officials attended Monday's business meeting to push the case for a new building in their community, while parents and PTSA representatives also asked for a better Youth's Benefit Elementary School, Joppatowne High School and John Archer School.

The complaints were relatively similar, with speakers spending about 90 minutes trying to prove that their particular school is especially out-of-date.

The board expects to take action Sept. 24.

James Thornton and Robert Frisch said they were unhappy with the entire process of prioritizing the school construction, calling it "broken."

"What has evolved here is a very political process, and there is an elephant in the room and we don't really want to talk about the fact that as a board, we are compromised," Thornton said.

"This whole prioritization problem is broken and I think unless we fundamentally come up with some way to depoliticize the process in a way that's fair," he said, noting that was the idea with the comprehensive facilities study.

"And yet we say, 'OK, we'll complete that over the next couple of years but in the interim, let's do this. And I, quite frankly, am bothered by this entire process," Thornton said.

Thornton said it is "unhealthy" to pit one community against another and he plans to speak more on the issue on Sept. 24.

Frisch said he is as frustrated as the audience with the process, which he thinks is broken.

"I don't want this board to be a party in this broken process," he said.

For that to happen, the board and the county council, at least, need to agree, which he said has not happened.

Frisch also said he is confused by the fact that the board has not seen the scope study on Havre de Grace High, but is nevertheless being asked to vote on the project.

"This doesn't make any sense to me," he said, visibly frustrated.

Board member Rick Grambo wondered about the need to replace school buildings so quickly and asked how long the buildings are expected to last.

"This process has kind of exposed perhaps some design flaws of the buildings," he said. "What are we doing to make sure the new buildings aren't going to be in need of replacement well before the bricks and mortar wear out and fall down?"

"It seems silly to constantly tear down buildings that were meant to last 100 years and wear out after 40 or 50 years," Grambo said. "Something's gotta change. What are we doing here?"

Joe Licata, chief of administration, said the buildings are designed for 50 or 60 years, not 100 or 200, because with items like the "advent of technology" and "special ed changes," buildings need to be updated.

"The state recognized those and developed this term of modernization," he said. "If you look through the history of our capital program, there was a shift in pure renovation problems to this concept of modernizing."

"We don't build a school to last 200 years. I'm not sure that's possible if you have to incorporate all those changes that need to take place on each side," he said.

Grambo observed: "So basically there is no problem with the buildings now. They were made to last 40, 50 years."

Board president Leonard Wheeler took the opportunity to philosophize on the changing nature of school systems and the struggle to get politics out of schools by allowing unpopular opinions and cutting out nepotism.

Educators and boards of educations began to hire numerous lawyers and the school system began to almost "turn [itself] over to influential people," he said.

"This board is not immune to that. It's happening across this country," he said. "This I know: when people are faithful and loyal to their institution, they will make every effort to make the best decision for that institution. It's not a word I use often, but they would also show backbone to make sure no one would hold back their children from receiving a better education than they received, and that requires courage."

Basic civil rights

The John Archer School is more than 40 years old and no longer equipped to serve the needs of severely handicapped students, many of whom have seizure disorders, need large bathrooms, cannot regulate their body temperature or have other health concerns, PTA president Kim Holcomb said.

"John Archer is the only public school in this county that serves the need of students…with severe and profound disabilities," she told the board.

Among the other issues, she added: "Our classrooms are too small and our hallways are too narrow for our children to adequately maneuver in wheelchairs throughout the buildings."

Susan Reitz, whose daughter attends John Archer, talked about that school's lack of bathrooms and the effects of the heat on the students, many of whom suffer from seizures.

"Most of the students go to school with diapers on and they are changed in the classrooms," she said, adding they "deserve the privacy that everyone else deserves.

"These children that go to John Archer deserve the basic civil rights that all these other kids get," Reitz said.

No school pride

Harford County Councilman Dion Guthrie, who represents the Joppatowne area, asked for a new Joppatowne High School, while a Joppatowne Recreation Council president noted the school has a very unsafe area where those attending sporting events must walk around the school to get to the bleachers.

Samantha DiBastiani, representing Joppatowne High Boosters, said students no longer have any school pride, the school has no stadium or community center and no way to get handicapped fans to sporting events.

The school is watching "the best of the best pack up and go to other schools," she said.

"Now kids don't even want to order class rings because they don't have school pride. They are all embarrassed to say they attend Joppatowne High School," she said. "We will advocate to give our students a school that does have a sense of community."

'A huge safety issue'

Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty, planning director Neal Mills and police chief Teresa Walter all told the school board of the need for a new high school in their city, as did several students and other community members.

Many wore maroon Warriors shirts to show their support.

Councilmen John Correri and David Glenn were also in the audience.

Walter spoke of Havre de Grace High's unique security issues, noting law enforcement today has problems previous generations never faced, such as social media and violent video games, and officials need to be prepared to address them.

"Havre de Grace is the only school in Harford County that actually has a city road going through the center of the campus," Walter said. "This is a huge safety issue from a law enforcement standpoint."

Walter said the school also has public sidewalks.

"Havre de Grace High is the only school that does not have an absolutely secure campus," she said.

Mills, of the planning department, said governments have long been pushing sustainable development, such as the new PlanMaryland initiative.

"The state and county and municipal governments now need to be focused on revitalization and redevelopment. Any new growth to reduce urban sprawl needs to be in dedicated growth areas. And all need to have public infrastructure already in place," he said, explaining a revamped Havre de Grace High would support those goals.

"Havre de Grace has the capacity right now for 2,280 family dwellings to be added to what's already being built and what has been built," he said.

Mills, a 1967 graduate of the school, said the housing market will rebound at some point and Havre de Grace High needs "curbside appeal" to attract those newcomers.

"When I walk out of city hall each morning, each evening, I look at the same school basically that was there 45 years ago," he said. "I commend the board for the athletic facilities. Now it's time to do the same for the physical plant."

Nina Cogan, president of the Havre de Grace High School Chapter of the National Honor Society, noted security is very poor at the school.

"The music wing is always unlocked during the school day," she said, adding anyone can be buzzed in and it 's only a short trip once inside the main entrance to get to the cafeteria.

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