School capital request reaches $30 million


The Harford County school board is requesting $30 million in state and local money to finance new construction projects to reduce overcrowding and the modernization of older schools in 1995-1996.

At the top of the priority list are four "capacity projects" that would require about $8.5 million in state and county money in the next fiscal year. As "capacity" projects, they are aimed at alleviating chronic overenrollment in Harford schools, which is a continuing concern of county and school officials.

The proposal also includes money for such things as playground equipment, site acquisition, environmental compliance, resurfacing sidewalks and parking lots, and instructional equipment.

The board detailed the ambitious capital plan in an annual meeting with the County Council last week.

School Superintendent Ray R. Keech told the council that capacity projects are critical because the public school enrollment -- which stands at about 36,000 -- is expected to jump to nearly 41,000 by September 1999.

Because of Harford's burgeoning population, Dr. Keech said, "every school we've built [in recent years] has been at capacity or over capacity by the time it is completed."

The school board must submit its priority list to Maryland's Interagency Committee on School Construction each year to be eligible for state capital funds. As a player in the budget approval process, the County Council must first endorse the board's capital improvement plan.

The council unanimously approved the priority list Tuesday and agreed to send a letter to the state noting its endorsement.

"Capacity projects" in the proposed capital budget include the relocation and purchase of portable classrooms to relieve overcrowding at several schools; construction, furniture and equipment costs at Forest Lakes Elementary School, which is scheduled for completion in 1996; planning approval for a new West Bel Air Elementary on Vale Road; and planning and construction money for adding pre-kindergarten classrooms at Magnolia, Deerfield and Abingdon elementary schools.

Other projects on the board's priority list include the modernization of Hickory, Hall's Cross Roads, Havre de Grace, Roye-Williams and Churchville elementary schools, renovation of science departments at Bel Air and Fallston high schools; expansion and renovation of William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary, and roof replacements.

Among the costliest projects is the modernization of Hickory Elementary, which was built in 1950 as a segregated school for blacks in grades one through 12, said schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison. Construction, furniture and equipment costs totaling $5.25 million are in the 1995-1996 capital budget proposal for that project.

Generally, 65 percent of new construction money comes from the state and 35 percent from the county, Mr. Morrison said. However, only the county government can finance planning costs and purchases of furniture and equipment, so the final shares of financing is usually 50-50 by the time a school is ready for occupancy, he said.

Harford schools received $16 million from the state and county for capital projects for 1994-1995.

Dr. Keech cited Fallston Middle School as an example of the speed at which Harford schools become crowded. With an enrollment of 980 students, it is already 80 students over rated capacity. It opened a year ago.

He said the state will not approve the construction of a new school until at least four schools in the area are over rated capacity, "so we're always playing catch-up."

Mr. Morrison said after the meeting that five new elementary schools have opened since 1990 to alleviate crowding in the busy Route 24 corridor, and still the problem continues.

"Ring Factory was up to 900 students by the time Emmorton opened this fall," he said. "These schools were built for 600 students."

Dr. Keech said the county also is playing catch-up on roof repairs.

"We have over 100 acres of roofs in the system. We need to do about 5 acres [of replacement] a year. But we're only doing 3 to 4 acres a year."

The school system's capital budget request said deteriorating roofs have contributed to water damage at several schools. Those tabbed for replacements include Harford Technical, Aberdeen South and Havre de Grace high schools; Edgewood and Magnolia middle schools; and Magnolia and Riverside elementary schools, at a total cost of about $688,000.

Dr. Keech said school officials need about $1.35 million to replace aging, energy-consuming rooftop heating and air-conditioning units at Edgewood and Riverside elementary schools and Havre de Grace Middle School.

The superintendent said the rooftop units at Harford Tech and Hillsdale Elementary also must be replaced "in the near future," but he did not request money for those in the 1995-1996 capital budget proposal.

Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson took advantage of the capital budget discussion to make a plea for more stringent adequate public facilities laws:

"It's dismaying to hear that, despite the efforts at budget time to provide the money for these programs, we're still behind," he said. "And the basic reason why this is happening is because we allow residential growth to grow too fast in relation to public facilities. Every house built is a drain on the budget," he said.

In other business at the meeting, the council:

* Approved an agreement between Harford Community College and the Harford Cable Network Board that allows the county's public access television station to provide continuous and uninterrupted programming from the college facilities for the next five years. The agreement also calls for an automatic renewal for another five-year term.

Among other things, the college will be responsible for maintaining the facilities and sharing its television production equipment with the cable network. In return, the HCN board will give the college access to its equipment and allow college interns to assist in its programming activities.

Mr. Wilson questioned the long-term agreement, noting that the makeup of the County Council, which governs the HCN board, will change three times before the agreement ends in 10 years. He also said there is no provision for an outside party to mediate any disputes that may arise.

But Robert Brophy, chairman of Harford Cable Network Board, said that no disputes were anticipated and that the agreement benefits both parties.

"There has been an extended history of good faith and trust among all these entities," he said. "This way, we know where we're going to be for 10 years and the college knows they have our cooperation on their [mass communication] program for years to come."

* Passed a bill that would give a property tax credit for restoration of Harford County historic landmarks. The tax credit would equal 10 percent of the documented restoration expenses, not to exceed $7,500. The bill passed unanimously.

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