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Harford leaders, Youth's Benefit students and community break ground on new school

Principal Thomas Smith holds his ceremonial shovel as he poses for a photo after breaking ground for construction of the new Youth's Benefit Elementary School Tuesday morning.
Principal Thomas Smith holds his ceremonial shovel as he poses for a photo after breaking ground for construction of the new Youth's Benefit Elementary School Tuesday morning. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A school construction project 18 years in the making, officially kicked off Tuesday morning with a groundbreaking ceremony for the $37.07 million, nearly 150,000 square-foot replacement of Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.

Dale Hunsinger, a former Youth's Benefit administrator, who spent many years in the intermediate building, said structural problems have afflicted the school for decades, prompting parents and others in the community to spend the past 18 years trying to convince school, county and state leaders to replace it.

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"What makes it special is, I live in this community," Hunsinger said of the replacement project. "I have grandkids here now."

Hunsinger, who served as assistant principal from 1970 to 1988 and is the principal at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, said the flat roof over the intermediate building, which was prone to leaking, is but one of the old building's problems.

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"Really, here is where I got a lot of my training," Hunsinger, who has also been an administrator at Halls Cross Roads Elementary in Aberdeen, North Bend Elementary in Jarrettsville and North Harford Elementary, said.

His daughter, Beth MacMillan, of Fallston, is a former YBES student, and her husband, Paul, is the chairman of the Build It Now organization, a consortium of community members dedicated to replacing aging elementary schools in Harford County.

"It actually makes me cry, I'm so happy," Beth MacMillan said. "I think our community is so deserving of it."

Her and her husband's three children have gone through Youth's Benefit, and their youngest son is in the third grade. Their middle son is in sixth grade at Fallston Middle School, and their daughter is a freshman at Fallston High School.

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"It's exciting to see we're going to have a new building," she said. "Our children can drink from the water fountains."

Parents have cited such issues as leaky roofs, water contaminated with lead, overcrowding, open classrooms with no walls and problems with the septic system as pressing reasons to replace the school.

"I'm very excited for our students and our community," Principal Thomas Smith, in his third year, said after the ceremony. "It's been a long process for them, and it's going to be great to have a state-of-the-art facility for all our students."

The ceremony took place in front of the intermediate building, the classroom building for students in third through fifth grades, one of two classroom buildings on a campus serving 993 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Paul MacMillan said members of Build It Now have been focused on replacing Youth's Benefit and William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon, schools that have multiple buildings.

"They serve almost 10 percent of the elementary student population in Harford County," he said.

The new Youth's Benefit Elementary, in which all students and staff will be under one roof, is scheduled to open by the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, 21 years after the community began pushing for a replacement.

"It's hard to believe that a full generation will pass before a student walks through the new doors," Paul MacMillan said.

A full slate of dignitaries made remarks before the groundbreaking.

County Council President Billy Boniface, who noted the project has been before the council during his eight years with the body, thanked members of the community for their respectful efforts to work with policymakers.

"You're an example for being an advocacy group from the community," he said.

Harford County government leaders, elected officials, Harford County Public Schools leaders, Board of Education members, community advocates for the replacement, current and former Youth's Benefits administrators, former students and current students were on hand for the groundbreaking.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, the Republican nominee for Harford County Executive, said he was on the County Council 16 years ago when the community began its push, and he joked that he would help pay for the school if he becomes county executive.

He also thanked those who have "been able to make this building a place of learning in spite of its shortcomings."

HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan addressed the students who were watching the dignitaries, and she stressed that they are the heart of the school.

"A school is only a building if no one is in it," she said.

She also reminded them that the adult faculty, staff and administrators are at school "every day because it's about you."

"God bless everyone who has had a hand in this, and God bless everyone in the future," Canavan said.

Laura Runyeon, president of the Youth's Benefit PTA, called Tuesday "truly a monumental day."

Runyeon, a longtime advocate for replacing the school, is running for the District B seat on the Board of Education.

"There are a number of people who worked very hard beside me," she said.

Brendon Mudd, a fifth grader and president of the YBES Student Government Association, also spoke to the audience.

"Let's never forget about where we all came from," he said. "Go Gators!"

Tom Gilbert, president and founder of Gilbert Architects Inc., which designed the new school, expressed his thanks as well.

"We are very proud to be part of this team and to be able to provide a 21st century school that will change the lives of thousands of students and the teachers that teach them," he said.

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