In a clear display of their distrust of the Carroll's school system's troubled construction program, the county commissioners delayed yesterday spending $2 million on a new Westminster high school and voted to hire an independent consultant to oversee construction of Century High School in Eldersburg.
"I think it would be irresponsible to continue with this construction project," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said of plans to build a $35.4 million high school in Westminster. "There are serious questions that need to be answered. I think to move on in haste is to close our eyes and put our fingers in our ears."
After Frazier reminded her colleagues of the school system's legal problems of the past year, the commissioners agreed to reconsider the funding request for the Westminster high school tomorrow after they have heard details of School Superintendent William H. Hyde's plan to modify the school system's procedures, policies and governance in the wake of a March 24 report criticizing school construction projects.
"I don't want money moved back and forth, where you lose track of what you've spent," said commission President Julia Walsh Gouge. She suggested using other funds for grading and site preparation work at the Westminster school location instead of transferring money between the two school construction projects. The Westminster high school is to be built on a Center Street hillside next to Cranberry Station Elementary School.
"I would like us to take our time and take a good look at this," Frazier said. "There have been several developments since we last looked at this. The enrollment figures have changed, the state has said there would be no funding for any of the county schools for the next five years, and the planning commission hasn't even seen the plans [for Westminster high school] yet."
But Gouge and Commissioner Donald I. Dell said a need clearly exists for the new high school.
Dell suggested hiring an independent consultant to oversee construction of Century High. The commissioners unanimously passed Dell's motion to hire the consultant.
"I would like to hire someone who would oversee the project on a day-to-day basis someone who will look at the contracts and know that the materials that were ordered are the ones that come in," Gouge said.
It was not clear yesterday how much it would cost county taxpayers to hire a consultant.
The commissioners then went into a closed meeting to determine what the consultant's responsibilities would be.
School board members, who have hired construction managers for the two high schools, had differing responses to the commissioners' actions. "It ought to be interesting," said school board member Gary W. Bauer. "It seems like a waste of money because you've got a consulting firm already overseeing the project."
Noting the past year's lawsuits and a grand jury investigation into the school system's construction department, board member Susan W. Krebs said she understood commissioners' desire to step in. "It is just very embarrassing to our school system that the county government rightfully so feels they have to oversee our construction process," she said. "But I certainly don't blame them in lieu of what has happened."
But school board President C. Scott Stone said hiring an independent consultant was "a great idea" -- and one that would demonstrate that the school board and the commissioners are working together on projects.
"One would wonder why we didn't think of it earlier, to bring in the expertise to represent our respective interests," he said.