The Harford County Board of Education, still reeling from the sudden death two weeks ago of Dr. Leonard Wheeler, its president, and trying to quell public angst over which community gets the next new school, decided Monday night to request funding for replacements of Youth's Benefit Elementary School and Havre de Grace High School in its fiscal year 2014 capital budget.
The final decision on what amounts to the most immediate school construction priorities came Monday night after much debate and emotional discussion among board members, as well as comments from several Fallston and Havre de Grace residents and residents from other communities that need new schools.
Also weighing heavily on the board as it acted Monday was the recent and sudden death of the board president. Before the capital plan was brought before the board, members paid tribute to the late Dr. Wheeler (Please see story, Page A 16).
Funding requests for the new schools were part of a total 2014 capital budget request of $59,836,479. Other projects in the plan include HVAC upgrades for Magnolia Middle School, Fallston High School, North Harford and Norrisville elementary schools, roof replacement for George D. Lisby Elementary School in Aberdeen, systemic improvements for Joppatowne High School, a computer lab for Edgewood Middle School and energy efficiency initiatives throughout the school system.
A total of $26,844,052 is requested on the state level and $32,992,427 from the county.
School officials have been considering a replacement of the older of Youth's Benefit's two buildings for more than a decade, as they have likewise considered replacing aging buildings at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air and William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon.
The new Havre de Grace High School wasn't even on the school board's radar until about a year ago when Harford County Executive David Craig began letting it be known publicly he wanted consideration given to replacing the oldest of the county's 10 high school buildings.
Craig, an HHS graduate and lifelong resident of the city, will finish his final term as county executive in December 2014. His comments about building a new school began to take more weight this past spring, when the county executive warned members of the Harford County Council and school officials he would block any new county and school capital projects, if the HHS project was not given top priority in the county and school capital programs.
A difficult decision
Before the vote, school board members acknowledged the enormous community support they had seen thus far and assured everyone that the decision they were to make that night was not easy.
Newest board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said he had toured HHS and YBES, as well as Patterson Mill High School to compare the county's oldest schools to a newer one.
"It is quite real," he said about the differences between schools. "It is quite striking."
Cassandra Beverley addressed those in the audience and said she was "very impressed with the depth of research and documentation that all of you have provided in order to assist us in making this very difficult decision."
She added that she has read every letter and e-mail she received on the matter.
"We have listened intently and have done a thoughtful job of trying to go through all the pros and cons," Beverley said. "I hope that the community understands that no matter how the vote comes out we have heard all of you and value all of you and want the best for all the students in Harford County."
James Thornton added that he would remain objective in his vote and it would "not be an easy decision."
"I just love the fact that this room is packed," board member Alysson Krchnavy said. She added that she, too, has read every e-mail and has been "taking them under very serious consideration as we move forward."
Bob Frisch said the decision he would have to make that night was the "most difficult decision I think I have faced," adding that it has caused him many sleepless nights.
The decision, he continued, "has significance and it has long term implications for our school system and the communities that are here tonight and the ones that aren't here."
He urged everyone to not be discouraged and to continue to advocate for their school.
"That's what drives decisions," Frisch said. "You are the ones who help us."
Rick Grambo, who is acting as interim president on the board, said he spent a lot of time talking about the board's role with this decision with Dr. Wheeler.
"Our role as a board here is to put forth a priority list," he said. "This is not the end. This is the beginning."
He added that it is essentially up to the county executive and the county council to take care of the local funding and if and when that happens.
Many supporters of Havre de Grace High School, wearing Warriors T-shirts and maroon and white school colors, and Youth's Benefit and community-based organization Build It Now, wearing their usual green shirts, were in attendance and advocated for replacement buildings in their communities.
Havre de Grace City Council members David Glenn, Bill Martin, Joseph Smith and Council President Randy Craig were in the audience along with Mayor Wayne Dougherty.
Glenn spoke on behalf of the city council, as he has done in previous meetings.
He listed various concerns the city has with the school, such as a main entrance separate from the main office, repeated gas leaks and a campus separated by heavily traveled roads.
Glenn said the county needs to "provide a safe and secure learning environment" for the students and with the current facility it is "falling short of that goal."
"There has to be a better way," he told the board. "It's time to take politics out of the mix. Don't jeopardize [the students'] education."
Paul MacMillan spoke on behalf of Build It Now, which advocates for replacements of the county's aging, multi-building elementary schools - namely Youth's Benefit and William Paca/Old Post Road elementary schools.
"Time is of the essence," MacMillan said referring to the request of funds. "Include Youth's Benefit as a replacement of this year's [capital improvement] plan."
MacMillan noted that Youth's Benefit has been on the school system's priority list for replacement, at one level or another, for 16 years and is basically shovel ready.
Joppatowne community members, including Parent Teacher Student Association President Brenda Flenner, also made their case for renovations to their high school. Joppatowne, which opened in 1972, is the next oldest high school building after Havre de Grace.
She asked the board to provide Joppatowne students "with the quality learning environment that meets the standards of other Harford County schools."
Flenner added that JHS was a "forward-thinking facility" with its homeland security magnet program and should not be labeled as "inferior or unimportant" as many Route 40 corridor schools unfairly are.
Finishing the plan
Before their final vote Monday, school board members considered several amendments to the capital improvement plan, which they had also discussed during their Sept. 10 meeting, the last session presided over by the late Dr. Wheeler.
The two most controversial amendments were made by Frisch, first proposed to add a request of $1 million from the local level for planning services on the Youth's Benefit project.
"While some has been done," Frisch said referring to previous designs of a new YBES, "there are significant adjustments that need to be made to the plan."
"If the county executive wants to support the project then the county government should put up the $1 million," so the board can keep that money for possibly more pressing matters, he added.
The amendment passed; Krchnavy was the only one voting against it.
Prefacing his second amendment by saying, "This is very difficult," Frisch then made a motion to delete the request for funds to replace Havre de Grace High School completely from the fiscal year 2014 plan.
"I'm not opposed to the Havre de Grace community getting a new facility or an upgraded facility," Frisch said. "The issue I have with the inclusion of Havre de Grace High School as [has] been included is that it ignores the situation involving other schools that have been basically in the queue for renovation or new construction for quite some time."
Frisch continued to say that the county executive, in discussions with the board, has said he has "legal authority to insert capital projects as he sees fit even if it's not something the board has evaluated and agrees with." Frisch added that he's not convinced Craig actually has that authority.
Frisch said waiting for the countywide facilities evaluation – an initiative of the county government – to be completed would give a fair and balanced look as to what schools need to be prioritized and would take the politics out of the process.
"I don't think it's fair and I don't think it's completely detrimental to hold off at least for one year to consider putting Havre de Grace High School in our queue at that point," Frisch said.
Frisch said allowing Craig to set his own priorities for school construction sets a precedent that "every year from here on out, whoever may be in the position of political power, can dictate to the school system how we're supposed to align our capital improvement plan."
Fitzpatrick, a Havre de Grace resident, fired back and said while Frisch made good points, it was in the best interest of everyone to keep the HHS funding request in.
Addressing the need for a new HHS, YBES and upgrades to JHS, Fitzpatrick said, is "reasonable" and creates a balance of improvements to schools across the county. Frisch's amendment, he added, would undo that balance.
The amendment to delete funding for HHS failed, with Frisch and board member Joseph Hau voting for it.
If the amendment were to be adopted, Fitzpatrick said, "every single person in this room will go home disappointed" because the school board's request for funding would be in stark contrast to that of the county's.
In all, $6,595,048 was requested on the state level and $1 million from the county for the replacement of YBES and $3,700,000 from the county for HHS.
The board unanimously approved an amendment offered by member Nancy Reynolds to include in an item originally labeled as "stadium upgrades" for Joppatowne High School as other upgrades that were part of a 2009 scope study on the school.
Systemic improvements that will now be a part of that line item include replacement of windows, upgrades to restrooms, stadium turf replacement, lighting upgrades and replacing the majority of the ceiling in the school, Krchnavy noted.
Including inflation, design and engineering costs, the board requested $20.2 million for this project to be split evenly between fiscal year 2014 and 2015.
To fund the Joppatowne project, funding requests for HVAC upgrades at Fallston High School will also be split evenly between fiscal years, $18 million in total and $9 million per year.