Need vs. reality consumes Havre de Grace High replacement project

When Harford County Executive David Craig first proposed building a new Havre de Grace High School a little more than a year ago, I wrote a column that was generally supportive of the concept.

While I still think Craig's proposal has merit, it appears the project isn't going to fly during his time as county executive, which means it probably won't get done during my time covering the news in Harford County, either. The project appears to be doomed for years, a casualty of fiscal reality or politics or, more likely, both.

Last week, the Harford County Council passed a series of budget amendments that basically removed any chance of the high school project receiving significant county funding before 2015. Craig's term as county executive will be over then; so will the terms of many of the council members.

That would leave the fate of the Havre de Grace High project up to the next county executive and county council. Significantly, the person the political pundits are anointing as Craig's presumptive successor, State Sen. Barry Glassman, is an alumnus of HHS, as is Craig. Sources tell me, however, that Glassman is reluctant for the county to take on the $90 million-plus debt for this project, not to mention several other school reconstruction projects that are also vying for financing. Regardless of where Glassman may stand on funding HHS, the argument about not taking on too much debt certainly has merit, no matter what the county's school construction needs.

When I arrived in Maryland 40 some years ago, the state had recently assumed responsibility for a significant amount of the costs of local school construction. Back in those days, counties routinely expected the state to pick up more than half the cost of a new school, possibly more under the complicated formulas the politicians in Annapolis devised for this new cost-sharing. Although the state still spends tens of millions annually on school construction, the typical share for a new school runs closer to 35 percent state/65 percent local today. In other words, the locals have to spend more - a lot more. Edgewood High School, completed two years ago, cost more than $80 million, so I'm assuming a new HHS will be every bit of $90 million, if the school were being built starting in 2014. The longer the project waits, the more it will cost.

There was a lot of finger-pointing last week between Craig and the county council members after the council voted to tank the HHS project. Council President Billy Boniface accused Craig of meddling in setting school priorities, an odd claim in light of how the council dictated the location of the newest elementary school - Red Pump in Bel Air - over the objections of school officials and Craig.

Craig shot back, threatening not to fund any new school construction for the next three years, unless the council restores the HHS project to its rightful place in the pecking order. He can definitely make good on that threat, hard as it may be to believe David Craig would refuse to spend public money on anything.

All kidding aside, there's certainly room for concern about how much Harford or any county can afford to spend, whether it be on schools or any other public works. In the past decade, Harford took on hundreds of millions of dollars of additional debt to build four new high schools and add on to fifth and to build two new elementary schools. Tens of millions also have been spent on other school renovation projects and on other public facilities, including the expansion of the main water treatment plant that will cost more than a new high school.

The HHS replacement project was vying for funding with some other school projects that were already on the table, including replacement of the older buildings at Youth's Benefit, William Paca/Old Post Road and Homestead/Wakefield elementary schools and replacement of John Archer School. And, the longer the HHS project has to stand in line, the more likelihood it will also have to vie for funding with improvements at Joppatowne and Fallston high schools, both which are turning 40 this decade.

Even though Havre de Grace High has the oldest building among Harford's high schools - the only one built prior to 1970 - I'm afraid the opportunity for a new HHS may have been missed. Then again, from a purely fiscal perspective, maybe Craig's proposal was unrealistic all along.

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