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Why not just build a new school? Harford education officials stress need to balance student enrollment first.

Pleas from community members to build new schools or expand existing buildings — rather than redistricting students to other schools every 10 years — are being heeded by Harford County Public Schools officials, although they stress that balancing enrollment must come first.

“Balancing enrollment is an effort that we need to focus on for the now,” Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said during the most recent Board of Education meeting, as he and his colleagues presented the school system’s proposed educational facilities master plan and comprehensive maintenance plan for 2021.

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“Moving forward with new school construction is an option, but that’s long-term planning,” Brown continued. “And we do plan to come to the superintendent with recommendations for new school construction, maybe some additions to deal with any [residential] growth that we see coming down the pipeline.”

Local school systems must develop facilities and maintenance plans and submit them to the state on an annual basis. The educational facilities master plan, which Harford County Public Schools must turn in by July 1, is a system-wide analysis of the conditions and needs of the county’s school facilities as well as enrollment projections.

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The plan also outlines a schedule of major capital projects, which would receive state and local funding, over the next decade.

That schedule starts with the limited renovation of Joppatowne High School, which is slated to be complete by the 2022-23 school year, followed by the replacement of Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air by the 2024-25 school year. Construction of a new John Archer School for students with special needs is scheduled for 2026-27 and construction of a replacement for William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon by 2028-29.

The comprehensive maintenance plan, which is due by Oct. 1, is an overview of how school buildings, grounds and equipment will be maintained in the coming years.

Both plans, geared toward ensuring HCPS provides “safe and secure, healthy learning environments,” support the development of the school system’s annual capital improvement program, according to Brown.

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“A lot of what we do on the capital side of the house influences our budget requirements on the operating side of the house, and vice versa,” he said.

The school board approved both plans by unanimous vote Monday, plus members approved educational specifications for the Homestead-Wakefield replacement. Those documents lay out how the 129,609 square-foot building, with an estimated capacity for 1,100 students, will be used. The new school will be a single structure that replaces three existing buildings on the campus off of South Main Street in Bel Air with a combined capacity of 907 students, according to the school website.

Board members also heard, earlier in the meeting, from many members of the public concerned about Harford’s ongoing balancing enrollment initiative for its 54 elementary, middle and high schools.

School system officials and planners with contractor FLO Analytics are seeking public input as they redraw school attendance areas. Much of the feedback has been negative so far as parents call for keeping children in their neighborhood schools rather than riding buses to schools that are farther away from home with students they do not know.

The final recommendations for school attendance area boundaries will be voted on by the school board next February and take effect in the 2022-23 school year. Board members have been hearing many comments from the community about redistricting during recent meetings, including Monday.

‘Balance enrollment first’

One common theme in the community’s feedback involves building new or expanding existing schools, or using portable classroom units where needed, rather than shifting students from one school to another to ease overcrowding in some places and increase enrollment in others.

Board Vice President Rachel Gauthier noted, during the presentation on the facilities and maintenance plans, that building new schools “is not as easy as it seems” and asked Brown to provide more information.

Brown stressed, as he has in prior meetings, that state officials require school districts to balance their enrollment and ensure all available classroom seats are used before the state provides funding for new or expanded facilities.

“They would like to see how you can balance enrollment first, because funding is tied to capacity and enrollment,” he said, noting that HCPS “wouldn’t reap the benefits of all the state funds that we could get for a school construction project” if enrollment was not balanced first.

Elementary schools went through a prior redistricting in 2011; a new school, Red Pump Elementary north of Bel Air, was built during that period, plus Deerfield Elementary in Edgewood was expanded.

The school system also planed to build a second new elementary school, Campus Hills, on land HCPS owns off of Schucks Road east of Bel Air, but that was put on hold because of a lack of funding as Harford County and the state continued to feel the effects of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

“The county couldn’t support building Red Pump and Campus Hills,” Brown recalled.

A decade ago, the county government provided funding for two major school capital projects at a time, with one jointly funded by the state and county and the other fully funded by the county with the understanding that local officials could seek reimbursement from the state.

The same arrangement would not be possible today, however, because of current allocations for school construction of the state level. School officials also would need to work with the county government to determine if it could fund two capital projects at the same time and if so, which of the two would be fully funded by local taxpayers, Brown said.

The school system needs to balance its local and state capital funding to cover necessary projects within its existing facilities, as well as building new or replacement facilities, according to facilities planner Missy Valentino.

“When the state looks at funding, it’s directly related to the number of student seats in a building and adjacent buildings,” she said of capital projects.

“If we still have empty seats in an adjacent facility, that is removed from the number that the state will fund,” Valentino added, noting that the number of seats for students in a building is directly related to the cost of that building’s square footage.

The county has, under County Executive Barry Glassman, supported one major capital project for the schools at a time, such as a replacement for Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston and the new Havre de Grace Middle/High School, which opened during the recently concluded 2020-21 school year.

“We have a fiscally conservative county executive, who has been very, very good to the school system and very helpful in funding everything,” Gauthier said.

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The board vice president noted that local and state officials have been “very careful” and “fiscally responsible” as Maryland comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic. New schools for Harford County are “not something that’s really realistic for us to be asking for right now,” she said.

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“We need to work with what we have and redistrict as needed, with moving the least amount of kids as we possibly can,” Gauthier concluded.

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