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Harford officials begin to discuss the unthinkable -- school closings

Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston, above, where a replacement building is under construction, is one of the few of 54 public schools in Harford County that has more students than seats. With a faltering economy and declining enrollment, many buildings are underused.
Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston, above, where a replacement building is under construction, is one of the few of 54 public schools in Harford County that has more students than seats. With a faltering economy and declining enrollment, many buildings are underused. (AEGIS FILE / Baltimore Sun)

As public school enrollment slips, and the local economy continues to sputter, Harford County government and school officials are beginning to discuss the unthinkable: closing underutilized school buildings.

One of the wealthiest counties in the state and the nation, Harford has the financial wherewithal to maintain its existing slate of 54 schools, despite the declining enrollment in recent years.

If the housing market continues to lag, or the economy takes another dive, however, key local decision-makers could be forced to consider closing some schools and merging student populations, according to members of the county's Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board.

"We can manage some of the financial obligations responsible for keeping a school [open], because of the social, politically correct considerations that we need to think about," the board's chairman, County Council President Richard Slutzky, said during the board's semi-annual meeting in Bel Air Thursday evening.

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The APF advisory board, composed of representatives of the Harford County Council, the school system and the school board, plus the county planning and treasury departments, meets twice a year to review school capacity figures, enrollment projections and the rate of home building.

Overall, student enrollment in Harford County Public Schools has been falling in recent years as population growth slows and the home-building market – long the key driver of the local economy – struggles to recover.

"We are due for a recession, and it's not going to feel like it because it feels like we never left the last recession," County Treasurer Robert Sandlass said.

There are 37,451 students enrolled system-wide in HCPS for this school year, a decline of 92 students from the 2014-2015 school year. The enrollment has declined by 391 students over two academic years – the enrollment was 37,842 for the 2013-2014 school year, according to HCPS data.

The national economy is starting to recover from the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, but things could change for local schools, if the economy crashes again, Slutzky said.

"As long as we are able financially to manage being on the edge, it may be appropriate to stay on the edge with schools," he said. "If, financially, it comes to the point where there's a substantial crash again, then we may need to re-evaluate."

Slutzky compared the current national economic situation to the economic turmoil in the U.S. during the late 1800s, when the economy "dropped precipitously, went back up and then dropped again, precipitously."

Budgets grow regardless

Slutzky noted about half of the eight general high schools in Harford are well under their capacity – he offered suggestions for closing Havre de Grace High School, which has the smallest enrollment in the county, and sending its students to surrounding under-capacity high schools.

The ninth, Harford Technical High School, draws its student body from all over the county, and is the only secondary school in the HCPS where enrollment exceeds capacity, by 98 students, or 111 percent. There have been discussions in the past about expanding Harford Tech or locating some computer or technical programs at other schools which have unused space, but not much has come from those talks.

Edgewood High School is at 75 percent of its capacity, Fallston High School is at 69 percent, Havre de Grace at 71 percent, North Harford at 76 percent and Joppatowne at 59 percent, according to enrollment data provided during the board meeting.

Havre de Grace High School has 605 students this year, the smallest high school enrollment in the county.

"You have Edgewood with 25 percent [unused] capacity, and you have Aberdeen with 14 percent capacity," Slutzky said. "You take a portion, overall, of Belcamp and Riverside kids to Edgewood and you move the Havre de Grace kids to Aberdeen and North Harford."

Havre de Grace residents and elected officials have spent years pushing for a new high school to replace the aging facility. Two years ago, advocates were able to win state approval for a replacement building – an $87 million combined middle and high school – by showing how the high school is a vital part of the community.

Although the Havre de Grace project also had the support of the previous county administration, within weeks of taking office last December, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman withdrew the local funding commitment for that and other major construction projects, saying the county needed to reduce its outstanding debt.

Glassman, who attended Havre de Grace High and Middle, as well as Meadowvale Elementary in the city, hasn't ruled out reviving the HHS project once county finances improve, but he also hasn't provided any timetable.

HHS advocates, meanwhile, say they are looking at other funding vehicles, and during the most recent Board of Education meeting Nov. 16, board member Thomas Fitzpatrick, who represents the Havre de Grace area, said "developments are pending at the state level on funding."

"You can't lose sight of what the reaction's going to be," Joe Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools and another APF panel member, said regarding closing schools.

He asked if it is worth closing a low-capacity school "and taking that community aspect out of it and creating other issues along with it when you do the redistricting?"

Capacity solutions

Licata said transporting students out of Harford County for special needs programs not available locally is one of the "large-volume dollar expenditures" for the school system. He suggested reserving unused classroom space in under-capacity schools for the out-of county programs.

"It will cost to create the program here, but we have the space, so there's less cost to create from new," he said.

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Licata also suggested reserving unused space for expanding vocational programs that can't be offered at Harford Tech because of the overcrowding there.

School board member Robert Frisch, another APF panel member, said "some programs were moved around to alleviate crowding" during the comprehensive elementary school redistricting process about four years ago.

He said the county government's recent comprehensive facilities analysis includes recommendations for moving programs into under-used schools, as well as "actually looking at the CEO [Center for Educational Opportunity] as maybe a building the school system could do without."

The CEO, housed in the former Aberdeen High building that was supplanted when a new school was built on the campus in 2004, has 53 alternative education students, according to enrollment data, and is also used for teacher training.

"There is a lot of flexibility moving forward on how to do this, and it's a job that we'll all be involved in," Frisch said of school capacity.

Sluggish home building

Harford continues to feel the effects of the recession in its sluggish home building market, which is showing some signs of life, but it is nowhere near its peak from a decade ago.

As of October, 3,975 residential building permits have been issued in Harford since 2010, according to data provided during the APF meeting.

County Planning Director Bradley Killian said 600 to 700 permits are being issued annually and, while the market for building apartments has ticked up in recent years, he said it is starting to cool off.

"While the apartments were robust for a while, that's probably starting to reach what most people are saying is saturation," Killian said. "There's nothing, really, on the horizon."

Licata said there has been growth in elementary school populations in areas where subdivisions have been built recently around Abingdon and Bel Air. The total capacity used among the 33 elementary schools is 90 percent, according to enrollment data.

Harford County, along with the state, provides the bulk of Harford County Public Schools' annual funding, and the county depends on the various fees charged to home builders, along with property taxes, as a key revenue stream.

Developers of new residences must pay a one-time impact fee, which is then used to offset the cost of capital improvements for schools that would accommodate increased student populations. Revenue from the fee has lagged because of the slowdown in building, and the county council recently passed a bill that allows developers and builders a year to pay the fee after they receive a building permit, rather than requiring payment up-front when the permit is applied for.

Licata said no schools are at a 110 percent capacity threshold, set by county law, at which the APF board can recommend a moratorium on residential development in that school's attendance area. No schools are projected to hit that mark through 2022, he noted.

"There's nobody close to the moratorium in this year, nor in any of the out years," Licata said.

This story has been updated to reflect a correction that Harford County Executive Barry Glassman attended Meadowvale Elementary in Havre de Grace.

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