The cost of replacing the aging Havre de Grace High and Middle school buildings has climbed by some 14 percent in the two years since the project was seemingly on a fast track to be built with the support of school officials and the county government.
Under the school system's proposed Capital Improvement Program for fiscal 2018 that was reviewed by the Harford County Board of Education Monday night, the new building housing 1,300 high and middle school students is estimated to cost $99.2 million.
The Capital Improvement Program has been refined throughout the summer and will be voted on next month. It must be submitted to the state by early October.
The HHS replacement project, for which the Havre de Grace community has pushed for several years, sits at the top of the CIP priority list encompassing 40 projects.
It has remained in the CIP despite the cancellation of local funding after Harford County Executive Barry Glassman took office in December 2014. Despite prior state approvals for the project, Glassman cut the HHS funding as part an initiative he launched to scale back spending on major capital projects.
Glassman stated earlier this year that he would again make the HHS project a priority, get it in the funding pipeline and start construction by the final year of his term in 2018. His predecessor as county executive, David Craig, was a major proponent of the project and toward the end of his term forced both HCPS leadership and the Harford County Council to advance it in priority.
Craig, a native of Havre de Grace, graduated from HHS, as did Glassman, but the latter said he had concerns about the county taking on such an expensive project at a time it was paying off tens of millions of dollars in bond principal and interest for projects started by Craig, including new school buildings.
The existing main high school building in Havre de Grace, completed in 1955, was expanded during the 1950s and 1970s and extensively renovated in 1984. A separate auditorium/gymnasium building opened across Congress Avenue in 1971. The middle school opened in 1967. Both physical plants are the oldest among the county's high and middle schools.
The Havre de Grace replacement project's estimated price tag was $86.8 million in mid-2014, when schematic designs for the 240,000-square-foot building, which would be constructed on the current middle school grounds off Lewis Lane, were first presented to the community. At the time, HCPS officials expected construction would take about two years, and the building would be ready by the 2017-2018 school year.
When they made their first presentation on the new CIP to the school board on June 27, HCPS staff projected the project's total cost would be $102.1 million, based on the state's fiscal 2017 criteria for school construction. That estimate was revised to $99.2 million as of Monday's presentation, based on updated state criteria for fiscal 2018, an HCPS spokesperson explained.
It is projected that construction would start late next summer or early next fall and be finished by December 2019, according to CIP documents. The existing middle and high school buildings would then be demolished.
The latest projection assumes availability of both county and state funding, however, and the actual cost could be different from the current estimate, HCPS Manager of Communications Jillian Lader cautioned.
"Harford County Public School's priority is student and staff safety in each of our buildings," Lader said Wednesday in an emailed statement. "We continue to monitor and maintain the existing building at Havre de Grace High School to ensure it meets basic safety standards. It is wheelchair accessible and accommodations have been made for students as needed."
"That being said, the building is aging and is not in its original condition," she continued. "We have worked with the community, county and state to develop a plan that when funding is available, we may begin construction on the new building. Until we go to the state in October for our work session to develop a scope that the state will approve, the numbers that you see associated with the project are place holders and don't represent the actual cost of the project at this point in time."
Under the latest CIP, $38 million – $28 million from the county and $10 million from the state – is requested toward the Havre de Grace project out of a total program request of $102 million. Other projects include replacing school roofs and HVAC systems, replacing school buses, upgrading school technology, replacing band uniforms and $154,000 worth of improvements to the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center to restore overnight stays for HCPS fifth-graders.
Havre de Grace residents have been working to keep the school replacement front and center in the minds of county and school system leaders with online campaigns such as Havre de Grace Warrior Proud on Facebook and #buildhdg on Twitter.
A few high school parents and students attended Monday's school board meeting. Many wore maroon T-shirts with the #buildhdg slogan.
"We want to make sure Havre de Grace remains a priority, not just for this [county] administration, but also the Board of Education," parent Cassandra Tomarchio said.
She noted parents who have children in elementary and middle school now will be the greatest beneficiaries, as the students who are in the school now could be gone by the time a new school is built.
"It's our elementary school parents that are going to reap the benefits of the hard work of this administration," Tomarchio said.
Board members have said little about the Havre de Grace project during each of the three CIP presentations this summer, but they have peppered staff with questions about technology upgrades, school bus replacements and the Harford Glen improvements.
The school administration canceled the overnight stays at Harford Glen, a longtime tradition for fifth-graders, during the 2014-15 school year after bedbugs were found at the facility. Superintendent Barbara Canavan and her staff determined infrastructure repairs needed to resume the overnight stays were too costly and declined to fund such improvements for the 2015-16 school year, despite pleas from some parents, students, former students and board members.
School board members approved a one-time transfer of more than $271,000 from the operating budget fund balance to help bring back the overnight stays as part of the fiscal 2017 budget, which was approved in late June.