New headquarters is recommended for school system


Harford County's Board of Education should fight for money to construct a school administration building to replace its 113-year-old building and rented suites, a board-appointed commission has recommended.

Termite infestation, antiquated electrical and plumbing systems, and too little space for offices and meetings are just some of the reasons the Harford school system needs a new headquarters, according to the commission.

Selling the main office building at 45 E. Gordon St. in Bel Air and a house-turned-office building across the street could help pay for a new facility, Raymond W. Hamm Jr. said.

He led the Blue Ribbon Commission on Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Productivity Projects, which studied school system office, warehouse and workshop space this summer.

"The Gordon Street location is pathetic, [and] the Proctor House old and jam-packed," said Mr. Hamm, an executive vice president and senior loan officer with County Banking and Trust Co. The Proctor House is an old, two-story frame house with peeling white paint that contains some of the executive offices that don't fit into 45 E. Gordon St.

Inaccessibility for people with disabilities is another problem, according to people who work in the Gordon Street buildings.

The main building is a hodgepodge of a two-story schoolhouse built in 1882, a one-story addition and two temporary classrooms installed decades ago.

Not for wheelchair use

With steps at the entrances, differing floor levels connected by steps throughout, and two steep staircases, the building has neither an elevator nor wheelchair ramps.

One father who arrived for a discipline conference found he couldn't even get into the building with his wheelchair. "Fortunately it was a nice spring day, so they held the conference out there on a picnic table," said John M. Mead, executive director of pupil services.

The building may appear "quaint" on the outside, said personnel supervisor Kathleen M. Eng, but "it gives an impression of the system that is not really what our system is about."

The Board of Education holds public meetings in schools because of the small size and poor sound quality of the boardroom on Gordon Street.

Constructing the 60,000-square-foot building the school system needs would cost about $6 million, or $100 per square foot, according to Roger C. Niles, assistant superintendent for administrative services. A six-acre site the school system owns behind the Wakefield building of Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School is a possible location, he said.

The cost estimate does not take into account the commission's suggestion that county offices and the school system could share a new facility.

The commission cited several reasons for getting rid of the Gordon Street buildings and constructing a central facility.

* Three rented office suites on Main Street cost the school system about $200,000 a year. The offices house instructional supervisors and the school construction department.

* Dilapidated buildings make a poor first impression on prospective teachers and government officials visiting the county.

* Information stored in file cabinets instead of in computerized records takes up valuable space.

* The Gordon Street parking lot is too small.

"Arguments against doing this will be very passionate," but the board should forge ahead, establishing task forces and asking the County Council for planning money, Mr. Hamm said.

But County Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith, who attended Monday's school board meeting at which the report was presented, was not encouraging.

Even talking about the commission's suggestion to construct a building that the county administration, County Council and school board could share is premature, Mrs. Chenowith said.

"If we had the funds available, it would be nice if we had a complex" of offices, she said. But "there isn't really a whole lot of arguing to be done if we don't have the money to do it."

Building schools, not offices

Harford has built 21 schools since 1970 and renovated several others, but in those years, building a new headquarters or revamping the old office space has remained at the bottom of a long list of construction priorities.

System annexes in Forest Hill and Hickory need renovations, the commission said. A steep staircase in the Forest Hill annex poses a safety risk, Mr. Hamm said. And the building next to the zTC Forest Hill Business Center off Jarrettsville Road was not made to house a large number of offices because it is so close to a sometimes noisy print shop, warehouse and loading dock.

About 31 people have offices there, according to Mr. Niles.

At the Hickory Annex off Conowingo Road, prefabricated steel structures should replace portable buildings as workshops and service areas for the transportation department, the commission said.

About 30 people work there full time, and more than 100 mechanics, maintenance workers and bus drivers report to work there, Mr. Niles said.

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