Harford executive says new Havre de Grace High will be built - or else

Harford County Executive David Craig envisions ground being broken for a new Havre de Grace High School before he leaves office in December 2014.

Craig says the school should be built in an open area between the middle school and Harris Stadium. Most of the existing school would then be demolished, except for its auditorium, which Craig says can become a countywide performing arts center.

The county executive's plan is not only grandiose, it may prove to be politically untenable. Craig, however, says it's definitely feasible financially.

"It's Havre de Grace's turn" to get new school facilities, Craig says, noting that the high school is the oldest in the county, as is the city's middle school. Though all have been renovated and/or added to over the years, the city's two elementary schools are also among the county's oldest.

Last month, Craig threw down the gantlet when members of the Harford County Council balked at including the HHS project in the county's longer term capital improvement budget, obligating only feasibility funding and nothing beyond. Craig in turn warned that if the council didn't come around and support the project, he would refuse to fund any other major capital projects, schools or otherwise, during the remainder of his term.

Some council members have accused the county executive of meddling and trying to unilaterally set school construction funding priorities without the involvement of the county council and the county school board.

In a recent interview, Craig, a 1967 HHS graduate and member of the school's hall of fame, said he means what he says about holding future capital budget funding hostage if he doesn't get his way on the high school project. He says he expects the Havre de Grace project to be funded and claims to have the law on his side to stop any other project from moving forward if HHS doesn't.

According to Craig, the new school would have a "footprint" similar to the new Bel Air High School which was completed in 2009, except the HHS building would be smaller because it will have fewer students. Bel Air High has a capacity for 1,670 students, according to Harford County Public Schools, with a current enrollment of fewer than 1,450. Havre de Grace's two buildings have a capacity for 850 students, with current enrollment of about 775.

The Bel Air building, which also replaced an existing building, cost $80 million, a figure which also included demolishing the old structure and constructing a new football stadium on that site. A replacement building for Edgewood High, also completed in 2010, cost $90 million and also involved existing building demolition, a new football stadium and other site improvements.

Craig said $80 million would be an accurate estimate for the HHS project but, while the project wouldn't involve a new football stadium and track - Harris Stadium is only a few years old - it would require extensive site and infrastructure preparations.

The triangular site is bordered on the north by the elevated Amtrak railroad tracks, on the west by the middle school and Lewis Land and on the east by a freight railroad spur and Lilly Run, a stream with a history of flooding along its meandering course through the city. Craig, a former Havre de Grace mayor, said development of the high school site would take into account some proposed flood control measures along that stretch of Lilly Run.

Craig's plan will also involve extending Congress Avenue west from its current terminus at Juniata Street across Lilly Run and into the new high school site, Craig said, where there would be a loop. The extension will require bridging the stream. The site currently contains several ballfields that would presumably be relocated.

Craig said he prefers building a new school on a different site for several reasons: it avoids disrupting classes during construction, which would happen if the existing site is used; in opens up the existing site in the heart of town for other public uses and, most importantly, "we will have much more secure environment for our students."

The existing school is two buildings that are separated by the 700 block of Congress Avenue. The older of the two, built in 1955, contains most of the classrooms, the other building, about 15 years younger, contains the auditorium, gymnasium and offices. Though the city closes off Congress Avenue during school hours, many people have long considered the situation less than ideal, but one that grew out of necessity when a larger auditorium and gym couldn't be built on the original site.

Craig said the original school site should be cleared and used for public parking initially. He also suggested it would be a good location for a future Havre de Grace library branch.

He said everything on the south side of Congress Avenue should be razed except the auditorium which can be turned over to the county and/or city to be used as a county performing arts center, with the idea that related facilities could one day be built on the rest of the property.

None of what Craig proposes will happen, however, unless a majority of the county council members and the school board go along with the plan.

Craig acknowledges he is short of a majority on the council, but he said he is closer to getting four votes he needs than some people realize. Though he declined to speculate where he stands with the school board, the board showed as recently as this week that some of its members are wary of committing to any new school projects unless the are working on the same page as the county executive.

Before Craig began pushing for a new HHS a year ago, the school board's top priorities were replacing three aging elementary school buildings, one each in Abingdon, Bel Air and Fallston, and relocating the John Archer School for students with special needs from the Campus Hills area the Bel Air schools campus. The school board hasn't even acknowledged that the HHS replacement is a priority; however, one member noted as recently as Monday that the board needs to be aware of the county's views on such matters.

According to Craig, the county can comfortably borrow up to $40 million a year for new capital projects. He said he would like to sell bonds on a two-year cycle for two projects, starting with HHS and one of the elementary school replacement and then follow with the other elementary schools and a new county administration building, although Craig, who is term limited, won't see most of the other projects start.

"I've checked this out with our financial advisors," he said. "I believe we can do these projects and stay comfortably within our debt ceiling."

By law, only the county executive can place a capital project in the budget and spend the money on it; however, while the county council can't initiate a project, it still must authorize the project expenditure by passing the budget. The school system has no taxing or financing authority; however, by state law it has the authority to determine what schools are built and where.

Craig said he doesn't envision a standoff with the council and the school board in the end. The council, he noted, "can't build any schools without me," and the school board, he added. is at the mercy of the county and state for the money to build them.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad