The Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School community has been advocating for a number of years to have a new school built to replacing the aging facilities, and now the Bel Air school has been placed in Harford County Public Schools’ queue for major capital projects with the planning process scheduled to start in fiscal 2022.
The Homestead-Wakefield project, currently classified as an “addition/modernization,” is slated to follow a limited renovation project for Joppatowne High School — construction on the Joppatowne project is scheduled to start in the current 2021 fiscal year, and the facility is expected to be ready by the start of the 2022-23 school year, according to the school system’s educational facilities master plan and comprehensive maintenance plan for 2020.
The plans, which HCPS officials must submit to the state each year, were recently approved by the Harford County Board of Education. The board’s approval, which happened during its June 22 meeting, happened after members had been asked this spring to consider changing the sequence of major capital projects scheduled to happen after the Joppatowne High project is complete.
The sequence as presented, which stretches over a decade, starts with the opening of the new Havre de Grace Middle/High School this fall, followed by the Joppatowne renovation, then the modernization of Homestead-Wakefield, building a new John Archer School to serve students with special needs — potentially on the Homestead-Wakefield campus — and finally building a replacement for William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon, all by fiscal 2029.
That was the sequence approved by the board June 22, but school system officials asked members at their May 18 meeting to consider whether or not it should be changed, with William Paca/Old Post Road and Homestead-Wakefield switching places in the order.
The school board would have to make what Superintendent Sean Bulson called “a very difficult choice.” Funding has been allocated by Harford County in HCPS’ fiscal 2021 budget to update a 2009 scope study on the Homestead-Wakefield project, plus conduct a study on finding the best location for a new John Archer building. Funding also has been allocated this year to conduct a study on the school system’s enrollment patterns, a study that could lead to a recommendation implemented in fiscal 2023, Bulson said.
“If we keep the order, then that means we don’t move on to John Archer and William Paca as quickly as we might want to do,” Bulson said May 18, noting that changing the capital project sequence “might disrupt the pace at which we get to Homestead-Wakefield.”
“Both projects, I think, are very important, but as we’re only able to do one at a time this is a really critical decision point,” the superintendent said.
The news prompted many Homestead-Wakefield parents, as well as a few teachers, to submit comments to the school board imploring them to keep the school in its place in the sequence. Homestead-Wakefield, which dates to the late 1950s, is overcrowded — it had 1,034 students, putting it at 112% percent of its capacity, according to the HCPS enrollment report for the 2019-20 school year.
Community members expressed concerns about overcrowded classrooms, students spread over three buildings, an aging and unsafe playground, mold, lead in the water in some sinks and other long-standing maintenance issues. Many people called for a new school to be built.
“I’ve been to Homestead-Wakefield,” board member Carol Mueller said June 22. “I’ve seen the conditions there — personally, I think it’s deplorable.”
Member Sonja Karwacki advocated on behalf of William-Paca/Old Post Road, which she said is “very near and dear to my heart.” That school, which also consists of several buildings on one campus and also dates to the 1950s and ’60s, is currently at 88% of its capacity with 865 students, according to the enrollment report.
Karwacki said William Paca/Old Post Road underwent some renovations in 2015, such as enclosing its open classrooms and providing walls and doors for each space.
“Most of those internal classrooms have no sight line whatsoever to the outside world,” she noted. “Essentially, we’re teaching children in giant cargo container-type boxes.”
Karwacki also cited the demographics of the student population, with a high percentage of children who are minorities, have special needs, speak English as a second language, and qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.
“I’m speaking on behalf of the children in that community,” she said.
The majority of board members advocated for keeping the sequence as presented, with Homestead-Wakefield following Joppatowne.
Board President Jansen Robinson said that members of the WIlliam Paca/Old Post Road community are seeking a new model of community-based education that “is going to take time to research and to pull that together.”
“They would rather get it right rather than try to get it fast, and I think that we owe it to those students and that community to get it right, because what they’re asking for is something that’s going to benefit the community far longer than just a new building,” he said.
Member David Bauer noted the school system is on track to experience similar situations in the coming years, “where we have three or more schools that all need a lot of work and we are basically saying, ‘OK, which one is absolutely the most critical?‘”
County Executive Barry Glassman has limited local funding to one major school capital project at a time, as he has worked during his tenure to get the county’s finances and debt in better shape than when he took office in 2014.
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Bauer suggested having discussions with county officials about accelerating the capital project schedule “going forward, not necessarily next year but the next decade.”