Saying the county Board of Education's $38 million estimate for a new Westminster high school is "out of whack," the county commissioners yesterday voted unanimously to put a $30 million spending limit on the project.
The move is likely to force the school board to rethink its plans for the 1,200-student school, possibly eliminating a football stadium, commissioners said. Athletic teams would then need to share Westminster High School's stadium until more money becomes available.
"A $30 million school ought to be pretty nice. They can live without the stadium," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "The instructional part of the school is primary. The stadium is secondary."
Costs for the new high school, which is slated to be built next to Cranberry Station Elementary School off Center Street, spiraled from $29 million to more than $38 million this summer as school officials factored in costs to remove rock and increases in general construction costs.
Other sites are also being considered, but the budget limit would apply in all cases, commissioners said. Paring costs by 20 percent would keep spending in line with the county's original budget for the project,
"In my mind, we are justified putting on a cap," Dell said. "This is out of whack. It's too much of an increase."
School Board President Gary W. Bauer said estimates were high because school construction officials were planning for a worst-case scenario. He said the staff would review the project for possible cuts.
"What else can I say? They are the funding source," Bauer said of the commissioners. "We'll have to see how we can make this project work with $30 million."
Superintendent William H. Hyde, who met with Dell shortly after the vote, said he understands the commissioners' budget constraints. He would not discuss what adjustments could be made to the school design to stay within budget, calling such discussions "premature."
Members of the community, however, feared the county might sacrifice quality to meet its budget demands.
"I don't want a piecemeal high school," said Susan Ullrich, who co-chairs Citizens for Schools, a network of about 400 parents advocating the new school. "I want a full high school. We deserve it. South Carroll is getting theirs. And it's been almost 30 years since we built a high school in Westminster."
Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said most of the cost-saving measures would be minor, such as less expensive building materials and site work adjustments. She stressed the county is committed to building the school.
"We are trying to be fiscally responsible," she said.
Other sites considered
One factor that may affect the cost is the school's location. School officials expect site work and rock removal near Cranberry Station Elementary to be costly. But other sites -- more than 10 have been reviewed -- may pose fewer challenges and could be less expensive.
"We have another site that we are waiting to hear from," Frazier said. "If that site is available at a reasonable price, I would favor moving to that site, which I feel is a safer and a better location." Frazier said she expects to hear from the site's owners by the end of the month.
School board member Susan W. Krebs, who favors switching locations, said the site being pursued by Frazier is "ideal." Yesterday, she urged the commissioners to continue their 11th-hour search for alternative sites.
"The majority of us agree it would be in the best long-term interest of the community," she said.
Moving the school is an option that has won the support of many school officials and parents, even though it would likely delay the school's opening. Citizens for Schools favors finding a different site -- so long as one is chosen soon and construction would not be delayed by more than a year.
In addition to the high construction costs, several factors at the Cranberry location have worried parents, including the busy roads around it, a dense number of businesses close to the school and a tunnel beneath Center Street that students would have to travel through to get from the school to the athletic fields.
Dell, however, has said he favors the school at Cranberry. Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Krebs said she never expected the county to fund the entire $38 million. In August, Krebs was the only board member to vote against the school system's $163 million capital budget proposal, saying she was alarmed by the high cost estimates for the new high school.
School administrators are meanwhile proceeding with work at the Cranberry site. They said beginning now is the only way there will be a chance of opening the school on time.
The school system has already spent $150,000 to build the tunnel that would connect the high school to the planned stadium and $30,000 to do preliminary studies of the ground at the site. The school board voted 4-1 last week to hire an architect for $800,000. As part of the new contract, the architect would perform a feasibility study on a new site if one is chosen.
Board member C. Scott Stone, who voted to hire the architect, said the board had a duty to residents to move forward. Krebs, who voted against it, said she was uncomfortable hiring an architect before the commissioners made a decision on funding.
Ullrich, head of the parent advocacy group, called on the school board to take a lead in finding a new and less costly site.
Pub Date: 10/20/99