Harford school project priorities a matter of opinion

The Harford County Council criticized County Executive David Craig last month for making the Havre de Grace High School replacement building a priority in the county's school construction needs and in turn removed funding for the project from future capital budgets.

The county executive fired back by arguing the high school is desperately in need of improvement, even though a number of other school renovation and replacement projects in the county had been on the priority list much longer.

The 2013 county budget review process ended with no resolution of the impasse regarding a new HHS. It also raised anew the question of just who is responsible for setting school construction priorities in Harford?

The council may have been critical of Craig's role in boosting the HHS project, but it was the council that ordered the school system in 2009 to build a new elementary school at the Red Pump site north of Bel Air, rather than use a site at Campus Hills favored by school officials. Craig had initially sided with the school system on the Campus Hills location, but the council threatened not to fund the project, and the school was eventually built at the Red Pump site.

While the county executive and county council postured over Havre de Grace High and who is in charge on their end, the Harford County Board of Education also recently discussed starting a study this summer to determine what schools should be prioritized for construction.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace, said she doesn't believe the county should wait for such a study.

"I don't think that's advisable, from my perspective. I think we need to move forward with the funding commitments that have been made," Lisanti, who like Craig is an HHS alumnus, said shortly after the tiff between the council and Craig on the HHS project.

Old priorities

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Cornell S. Brown said he believes Homestead/Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air, the John Archer School for students with special needs, William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon, Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston and Joppatowne High School had all been on the school system's list to be rebuilt, before Craig announced in early 2011 that he wanted Havre de Grace High considered for replacement.

Brown also mentioned that the older of the two Homestead/Wakefield buildings is most likely first to be replaced, since that needs to be done to make room for the new John Archer school, which is due to move to the Homestead/Wakefield campus.

The last time a similar building priorities study was done, Brown said, it was a 12-month contract, so this study may take as long if not longer.

Last month, the county council voted to remove funding for years 2014 to 2016 to replace Havre de Grace High School from Craig's 2013 capital budget, and criticized the county executive for unilaterally revising the school priority list.

Craig fired back by threatening not to fund any school projects for the next three years, if the HHS funding and his other school priorities aren't left intact.

Not long after the dispute flared, school board member Bob Frisch said the board does hope its planned study clarifies what projects should go forward. He also said that means any project could be on the table for discussion and, ultimately, for funding.

Frisch added that the council members have made it clear they will not move forward with supporting any local funding for future school projects like HHS unless the state gets involved and contributes.

"I think most of us were of the opinion that we were going to wait," Frisch said. "I thought the whole idea of the study was to give a comprehensive evaluation of all facilities, and just as priorities have changed in the past, that doesn't mean that priorities couldn't change again. But at least we would have an independent voice giving a recommendation."

Frisch said he does not think the different parties involved are necessarily at odds with each other.

"I don't think anybody is trying to pick a fight. I think it's a matter of everyone getting on the same page," he said.

'Ultimate authority'

Council President Billy Boniface later clarified that the council did not take anything out of the budget concerning Havre de Grace High School but merely changed a required resolution dealing with the county's capital program – essentially a symbolic move at this point.

"If the board of education, as the ultimate authority, decides to go forward with Havre de Grace, that is the direction to go," he said, noting the council also plans to do an overall facilities study similar to what the school system is planning. "Ultimate authority" or not, Boniface was also council president when the Red Pump decision was made.

"We hope to be involved with the discussions when they begin their capital programs next month," Boniface said about the board of education.

"I think we really needed to be talking about what projects needed to be moving forward," he said.

Lisanti said she does think the Havre de Grace High School project needs to move forward, but she likewise emphasized that other school projects should be prioritized as well.

"I am hoping that when projects move forward, that they move forward in a logical manner. I do not understand and I do not agree with having a school like Youth's Benefit prepared [to go to construction] next year, but putting air-conditioning in a school you are going to have replaced," she said, referring to a recent decision by the school board to install air conditioning in the Fallston school's oldest building, even though the plan is to tear the building down and replace it.

Safety and equity

Lisanti said school construction priorities decisions should be based on three criteria: safety, equity of facilities and equity of access to programs. One of the reasons often cited by Craig and others for building a new HHS is so the school can host countywide magnet programs, like many other schools.

"I do not like the idea that we are picking and choosing," she said. "What I am hearing from the community is they want a level playing field... It is unproductive and undemocratic to divide and conquer, and say that because you live in Havre de Grace, you shouldn't have access to programs and opportunities that are afforded in Patterson Mill."

Lisanti also said she could not speak for all the council members, or for the board of education, and said she thinks everyone is looking out for their own interests, not for what is best for the county.

"I think everybody is focused on their piece of the pie," she said. "I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that these pieces become a whole."

The councilwoman, who chaired a council blue ribbon panel on school construction last year, said she said she will look at how to do that legislatively in the future. Her group had concluded there needed to be better coordination among the school system, county executive and county council, as well as changes in the timing of the budget process. The panel also said the state needs to update its own school construction funding model, one which it noted is more than 40 years old.

"My school and my community got punched in the gut," she said about last month's council meeting where Havre de Grace High School's funding was removed from the capital program.

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