Parents press for high school; Selecting new site for 2nd facility could delay opening a year; Thursday deadline looms; Board member says they 'can't work any faster' in search


A vocal group of Westminster-area parents wants county officials to justify delays in choosing a site for the city's second high school -- delays that could postpone its opening by at least a year.

"I don't understand why we can't just put this thing through," said Susan Ullrich, co-chairwoman of Citizens for Schools, a network of about 400 parents and residents who mobilized in January to push for the school. "People are outraged. They are just in an uproar that this is taking so long."

According to school officials, county commissioners have not made a decision about where they want the school to be. The high school was supposed to be built next to Cranberry Station Elementary School. But after concerns were raised about construction costs at the site and its proximity to busy streets, the commissioners and school board began exploring other options this summer.

School had hoped to choose a site by Thursday. The site will be purchased by the county and handed over to the school system to keep the project on track. The school is supposed to open in 2002.

"It has taken longer than anyone anticipated to take a look at alternative sites," said Vernon F. Smith, assistant superintendent for administration. "We are at a critical time."

The school system is moving forward with preparing the Cranberry site, which the county owns. Smith said the school should open on time if the county chooses to stay with Cranberry. Choosing a new site would likely delay the school's opening until at least 2003.

"If an alternative site is selected and committed to by both boards, there is a high likelihood there will be a delay in the project," said Smith.

Citizens for Schools leaders have meetings planned with all three county commissioners beginning today.

The advocates said they want to stress that relief is needed as soon as possible because Westminster High School will become only more crowded. The school, built to house 2,031 students, has an enrollment of 2,400.

The group said, however, that if given a choice between finding a better location or opening the school on time, they prefer a better site.

Vicki Anzmann, the group's other co-chairwoman, said she wants to make sure officials are working as quickly as possible and not letting politics get in the way of progress.

"What's to say [that] after this is delayed a year, it won't slide even further," Anzmann said, noting that hundreds more students would have to fit at Westminster High if delays occur. "If it has to be delayed one year, it does. But, gosh, 2,600 kids at that school is just mind-boggling."

Discussions among county commissioners and the school board about sites have been closed to the public, and officials will not discuss specific sites until one is purchased.

None of the commissioners returned phone calls Friday.

School board member Joseph D. Mish Jr. said the two boards found one site that many thought was ideal, but it was unclear whether the owner was willing to sell. Another site is being considered as school and county officials investigate whether the state would fund a high school there.

Mish said he has concerns about the Cranberry site, but he would favor an alternative only if it were secured soon and if he were assured the school's opening would not be postponed by more than one year.

"It's too bad we didn't do a feasibility study on [the Cranberry high school] site back when we decided we'd put a high school there, but what's done is done," Mish said. "This is the best we've got right now. We have got to proceed. We need this school."

Board member Susan W. Krebs said she is "absolutely opposed" to the Cranberry site. She fears the danger posed to students who would walk across Center Street or through a tunnel to get from the school to athletic fields for gym class or games.

"We are still actively, actively searching for a new site," Krebs said. "We can't work any faster."

The cost of the high school at Cranberry was initially $29 million. The estimate rose to $38 million in August, after the formula used by the state to reimburse school systems changed, and it was discovered that excavation and rock removal would be more expensive than originally thought. The cost increases were a big reason officials began looking for alternative sites.

Further delays could be costly as well. Beginning today, the school system is beginning a four-week, $30,000 project to examine the ground at the site and pass what they learn on to engineers and architects to begin designing the school.

School officials said the information would not go to waste if another site is picked -- it would benefit a future developer -- but the money would not be recovered.

"Those are dollars spent and gone," said Ray Prokop, supervisor of construction for the school system. "You can't get those dollars back."

The school system, working under the assumption the school will be built there, also has spent $150,000 to build a tunnel beneath Center Street to connect the future school and athletic fields.

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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