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County funding for Havre de Grace school replacement may be on shaky ground

A schematic view of the proposed Havre de Grace High and Middle School. Although a contract was let for site soil testing last month, the incoming Harford County executive is non-committal about building the school.
A schematic view of the proposed Havre de Grace High and Middle School. Although a contract was let for site soil testing last month, the incoming Harford County executive is non-committal about building the school. (Courtesy of Karen Burlingame, Grimm and Parker Architects)

Harford County Public Schools officials are moving forward with the first steps of the massive $86.8 million replacement project for Havre de Grace Middle and High schools, even though the incoming county executive has not yet made a commitment to county government funding for the construction.

"That's a sizable capital commitment," County Executive-elect Barry Glassman said Saturday. "We're going to wait and look at the entire capital budget when we get in for the county and the school system."

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The Harford County Board of Education approved a slightly amended version Monday night of the school system's capital budget request for the 2015-16 fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015.

The request, which the board acted on in September, includes $35 million toward the Havre de Grace project, $8,678,000 from the state and $26,322,000 from the county. Most of the requested funding would be for construction.

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According to school system capital budget documents, the county government previously funded $3,950,000 for engineering and design of the project. Last winter and spring, the state's school construction agency and the Maryland Board of Public Works conferred what is known as local planning authority on the Havre de Grace project, essentially green-lighting it to move forward without committing specific funds.

That leaves school officials still counting on the commitment of construction funding from the county and state during the 2015-16 fiscal year to meet their target completion date of late 2017 for a 240,000-square-foot building designed to hold up to 1,300 middle and high school students. The new school will be built adjacent to the existing middle school.

Earlier this fall, school officials approved a $27,488 contract for geotechnical engineering and subsurface exploration to evaluate the soils on the site.

Chris Morton, supervisor of facilities management for HCPS, said the money for the contract, which the Board of Education approved as part of its Oct. 27 consent agenda, is in the school system's capital budget for the current fiscal year. The contract is with Reuling Associates Inc. of Timonium, which will be an independent, third-party evaluator, Morton said.

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Morton said Monday the geotechnical work started on the Havre de Grace project site about two weeks ago.

"They evaluate the soils as to what type of foundation system can be supported," Morton explained.

He said the evaluation involves drilling holes to take soil samples, and then the samples are sent to a lab. The contractor will then prepare a report, a copy of which is sent to state public school construction officials.

The evaluation is needed to determine the locations for concrete footings, steel columns and stormwater management facilities, Morton explained.

Morton said Reuling workers will also oversee inspections of the foundation once construction is complete.

"The same firm will also provide the independent, third-party material testing for the job," Morton said of the inspections.

School system officials project the entire cost of the quality control testing and the geotechnical evaluation, will be $228,528, according to a report provided by HCPS.

Morton said the county's commitment of construction funding is needed to ensure the state makes its funding commitment. He said school officials expect foundation work would begin in November 2015 if funding is approved by July 2015. He said the school would be open two years after foundation work begins.

Glassman, a Republican who was elected Nov. 4, is scheduled to take office Dec. 1. Outgoing Harford County Executive David Craig has been the driving force behind the Havre de Grace project.

While Craig and Glassman are both Havre de Grace High School graduates, Glassman has been non-committal about the project since Craig began pushing hard for its inclusion in the school system's capital budget three years ago, eventually forcing school officials and then a majority of the Harford County Council to accept the project.

Glassman, who is leaving the State Senate for the county executive's office, explained that he wants to ensure the county is within its capacity to borrow money for capital projects and that such projects are "predictable and affordable."

"There are a lot of different factors out there that I want to look at before I make that kind of commitment," he said of the Havre de Grace project.

Glassman said his administration's priority "is probably going to be more centered on policy and people than projects," and administration officials would review pay plans for county employees and teachers.

"We are going to take a first look at getting our human capital on track and then moving ahead with capital projects," he said.

Under the school system's 2015-16 capital budget request, the Havre de Grace High and Middle School project remains second priority to the replacement of Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, a $47.7 million project for which ground was broken in October.

The county previously funded $21 million for that project and the state $6.2 million. The 2015-16 request is for $3.5 million from the state, the maximum it will fund, according to school officials, and $13.1 million from the county.

The third priority for the next capital budget is a request for $6.3 million in state and another $9 million in county funds toward a number of renovations to the 42-year-old Joppatowne High School, which will include replacement of the building's HVAC system. The project, for which $1 million in state funding was previously committed, has a total estimated cost of $27.4 million.

Other priorities include roof replacement at Churchville Elementary, for which $824,670 is being requested ($494,802 state, $329,868 county); replacement of the HVAC system at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, for which $4,625,000 is being requested ($2.4 million state, $2.2 million county); and replacement of the HVAC system at Prospect Mill Elementary, for which $4,685,000 is being requested ($2.4 million state, $2.3 million county).

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this story.

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