A decision whether or not to replace the Havre de Grace High School buildings or renovate them was put on hold again Monday night by the Harford County Board of Education.
The latest delay could be a prelude to considering a plan to build a new combined high and middle school, similar to what was done at Patterson Mill High and Middle Schools in Bel Air.
A combined project to replace both Havre de Grace schools was one suggestion made after the school board tabled a vote to select one of four recommended alternatives contained in scope study of options for upgrading the high school, including constructing a complete replacement building.
A vote on the study also was scheduled during the board's Nov. 5 meeting, but it, too, was postponed because the board had more questions.
While the board was delaying action again on future course of action, an influential Harford County Council member said Tuesday there remain concerns about the financial justification for a full replacement facility in light of the high school's low enrollment compared with others around the county.
More board questions
The scope study was on the agenda for Monday night's school board meeting in Bel Air but was pulled by board member and Havre de Grace resident Thomas Fitzpatrick.
"Both [people] inside the board and outside the board have questions and are seeking additional information in reference to the scope study for Havre de Grace High School," Fitzpatrick said.
While he stressed the board will still hold its commitment to the "goals we set out" in school construction, as was detailed in the board's capital improvement plan approved earlier this fall, Fitzpatrick asked to postpone the board's decision on the scope of the HHS project to a later date, which has yet to be determined.
The board approved the postponement, with all but member Alysson Krchnavy voting in agreement.
Board Vice President Nancy Reynolds then offered a motion to "evaluate other possible options, such as building a combination middle and high school and/or acquiring other suitable property for the high school."
That motion was unanimously approved.
Board President Rick Grambo asked Superintendent Robert Tomback if there would be a cost associated with the additional evaluations.
While there would be costs associated with land acquisition or commissioning another scope study, Tomback responded, he couldn't say what they would be.
"I'm not asking for an additional scope study," Reynolds said. "I'm just asking for your staff to investigate it to the best of their ability."
"Ideas are free, so we can certainly provide those," Tomback answered.
Reynolds added that the Patterson Mill Middle/High School, which opened in 2007 and was built to relieve overcrowding at other secondary schools in the greater Bel Air area, has been "very, very successful."
With Havre de Grace Middle and High schools having "relatively low" populations, she suggested it might be in the school system's best interest to combine the two, especially since the middle school qualifies as an aged facility in the county.
According to the school system's website, Havre de Grace Middle opened in 1967, while Havre de Grace High's complex has portions that date to 1955 and that were substantially renovated in 1983. The middle school is the second oldest middle building in the county; the high school is the oldest building among its counterparts.
Craig gives answers
County Executive David Craig, who has pushed for the construction of a new high school on a portion of the current middle school site off Juniata Street, attended Monday's school board meeting. During the public comment portion, he answered questions the board had raised at previous meetings. County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace, also spoke.
The board had previously questioned if a brand new facility were built near Lilly Run, which is historically prone to flooding, would the school system have to fund any stream restoration costs.
The Lilly Run stream restoration project, Craig said, "doesn't affect the board" and would be completed through county, grant and Havre de Grace city funds.
"That is a stream restoration project no matter what happens," he said.
On capacity of the new school, Craig commented, "When we fund any school now in Harford County capacity is not an issue."
What is an issue, he said, is the life cycle of the building.
Craig suggested building a "core facility" that can handle the current capacity without being too big, but one that could handle expansion in a decade or two.
He also addressed what could be done with the existing high school site and building.
The site, Craig said, is an "excellent location for a library," and, to his knowledge, the library is looking for a location to build a new branch in Havre de Grace.
He also discussed the proximity of the high speed Amtrak railroad tracks to the proposed school site.
"We're used to it," Craig said about the noise from the trains, adding that the community center that was built six years ago is closer to the tracks than the proposed school would be.
Lisanti thanked the board members for "reaffirming your commitment to Havre de Grace High School and taking time to consider the scope study."
The councilwoman, who, like Craig, is an HHS graduate, gave several suggestions for the board members to consider during their decision-making process.
In reading the scope study, Lisanti said, it was clear to her that "the limited renovation [option] fails to meet the basic standards set out by Harford County Public Schools."
The scope study had given four options: limited renovations, modernization, an alternative modernization plan and a completely new school.
One of the options had the city closing Congress Avenue, which separates the school's two existing buildings, and using the road as a walkway or for other school use.
That, Lisanti said, may prove to be difficult, as "only the electorate can surplus the land to the Board of Education" and the decision would have to go to referendum among Havre de Grace city voters.
Having attended the school while it was being renovated in the 1980s, Lisanti said she knew first-hand how disruptive it is to the learning process to have construction going on during the school day, and that would prove to be a huge disadvantage to renovating the school.
Finally, Lisanti suggested appointing a bipartisan committee, with members from different agencies, such as the county council, the Havre de Grace City Council, board of education and school administration, to make a collective decision.
With this, Lisanti said, "I pledge my work and assistance to you."
Even prior to Monday's school board meeting, the issue of capacity at the Havre de Grace secondary schools was raised during a county Adequate Public Facilities Committee meeting Thursday.
The panel, whose membership includes school administrators, was formed by the Harford County Council four years ago mainly to try to head off overcrowding problems in schools that were prevalent during the previous decade. The committee meets twice a year to go over such information as enrollment figures and available and planned capacity at individual schools.
Councilman Richard Slutzky, who chairs the committee, said Tuesday that Havre de Grace High School has an enrollment of 690 students. The school system's website, however, puts current enrollment at 775 students. The planned capacity for a new school is between 1,100 and 1,150 students.
Even if HHS were to become home an arts magnet program, as has been discussed in the past, the largest existing magnet program in the Harford school system, has 200 students.
The current Havre de Grace enrollment, plus the addition of a large magnet program, Slutzky continued, would still be much less than what is planned for a new facility.
In addition, Slutzky noted that there has been "a consistent decline [in enrollment]" over the years at HHS.
If the state would give funding for school construction next fiscal year, which may be unlikely, the county would only receive funds based on current capacity, he added.