THE IDEA OF constructing a new school administration building at a time when Harford County schools are overcrowded, despite a permanent fleet of trailer classrooms and a new school opening almost every year, may seem like a pipe dream.
Yet that's the recent recommendation of a commission appointed by the county school board to study productivity and efficiency needs. (The group is not to be confused with the school spending efficiency commission formed by County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, also this year.)
The school board panel pointed to the termite-infested, antiquated century-old brick schoolhouse on Gordon Street in Bel Air that has served as county education headquarters for 45 years.
And to the $200,000 in yearly rent for three overflow offices on Main Street.
With an estimated price tag of $6 million, for a 60,000-square-foot complex on school board property, that's less than the cost of erecting one new elementary school. The kicker is that the state pays more than half the cost of a new school -- and nothing to build an administrative office.
But the proposal makes sense from a long-term view, in terms of operating efficiencies, maintenance/repair costs and public access to school headquarters.
With 37,000 children in 49 county schools, a record number that continues to grow, and a $190 million annual budget, there's no pretending any longer that Harford is a country school system that can get by as it always has.
We all know that Harford ranks 20th among 24 Maryland jurisdictions in per-pupil spending and still manages to achieve above-average performance on various educational tests.
We know that teacher salaries may not be as high as some other counties and that the number of higher-paid school positions is comparatively smaller than in many systems.
And we know that Harford ranks in the top one-third for average income in Maryland, which implies the capability for extra home education spending that doesn't appear in school budgets.
Further, there's no guarantee that a new home for administrators will improve the level of public education in Harford.
If an extra $6 million magically appeared, public opinion would likely favor building a new school or fixing up a couple of older ones, rather than funding a Board of Education headquarters.
Harford doesn't need to build new school offices just to boast that it's up to date. Or to prove that the county has grown in size and importance.
But consolidating activities at a new central facility would prove more efficient and productive, and could achieve long-term savings. Upkeep and renovation of old buildings costs money. So do old, inefficient energy systems. So does the annexes' rent.
All things considered, the cost of a new central school office is not prohibitive for a county of 210,000 residents that hasn't hesitated to build expansive water-sewer facilities, a major jail addition and police station, libraries and community college buildings.
Finding someone else to pay for it has been a hallmark of these recent Harford projects. But the county still had to come up with its share of the cost.
Given the comparatively modest load of county debt, and its superior bond rating, it should not be a great burden to finance a new school headquarters through a bond issue.
Anyone who's ever visited the Gordon Street headquarters is startled by its curious layout: an exquisite study in frugality for some, perhaps, but a confusing patchwork design for others. For the physically disabled, there's no access to the second-floor offices and conference room.
Outside, the trailers or temporary classrooms that have been connected to the main building visually document the need for new facilities. So does the rundown look of the Proctor House across the street, which is also used by the school administration.
Conference room inadequate
The Gordon Street conference room is woefully inadequate for holding public meetings, so the school board meets in school auditoriums. (That may be a good public relations practice to continue, even with a new building.)
More new schools will be needed, as will renovation and $H expansion of existing schools. Those projects will require state funding, which Harford has been very fortunate to get for most of its school plans. That's where the priority should lie. But there's no reason to ignore the infrastructure, which is a local spending decision.
A new school administration building could prove even more economical by sharing development with other county agencies. The County Council is seeking new quarters with the arrival of an additional Circuit Court judge at the courthouse. The sheriff wants more space in his Main Street building, which is partly occupied by county offices.
With growing pains everywhere in the county, now is the time to take the steps necessary to provide for more efficient and cost-effective administration of expanding school services.
N Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.