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Westminster school site funds OK'd; One commissioner objects to handling of construction; Needed permits lacking; Other commissioners say promise made to community earlier; Carroll County


In a decision their colleague likened to enabling bad behavior, two Carroll County commissioners approved spending $2 million yesterday to begin readying the site of the new Westminster high school for construction.

Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell's approval paves the way for preliminary construction of the much-debated $34.5 million school. The project is expected to ease crowding at Westminster High School, one of the state's largest schools with more than 2,000 students.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier for months has questioned the wisdom of moving forward with the school, especially in light of the school system's construction and legal troubles of the past year.

"This puts the county in an enabler position, enabling the Board of Education to get away with business as usual," said Frazier, who voted against the expenditure. "It's sort of like being the driver of a getaway car -- maybe you're not involved with the actual wrongdoing, but you're enabling it."

The school board voted last month to transfer $2 million to begin preliminary construction work at a site adjacent to Cranberry Station elementary, where the high school is expected to open in fall 2002.

The board also approved a final design for the planned 1,200-student school and sent those sketches to the Maryland State Department of Education, which will decide this spring whether to partially finance the project.

On Wednesday night, the school board approved an $849,310 contract -- subject to the availability of funds -- with Meekins Construction Inc. of Finksburg to begin leveling the hilly site.

A number of steps have yet to be completed.

The county has not released a permit to begin grading work. Ownership of the county's property has not been transferred. Site plans for the project have not been approved by the necessary county agencies or the planning commission -- a review process that could take three months, according to Ralph Green, director of the county's department of permits, inspection and review.

The architect on the project and school officials, including Superintendent William H. Hyde and construction supervisor Raymond Prokop, assured the commissioners that the project is on schedule to have a construction contract in place before July 1.

That's the date when the state's new prevailing wage bill goes into effect, which could add as much as 10 percent or about $3.5 million to the cost of the school.

"In order for us to keep on the schedule we're on and in order for us to do the job we need to do, we have got to move," said architect Gary K. Blanton of SHW Group Inc., which did the architectural work for the county's Century High School, set to open next year in Eldersburg.

Frazier said she worried about beginning work at the site when the planning commission has not seen the site plans.

"I know people say that business does it all the time. But the difference is that a business is taking the risk and a business is losing the money," she said.

"We're working with taxpayer money for which we are supposed to be the stewards. I wouldn't take the risk with my own money, and I won't do it with taxpayers' money."

Although the commissioners approved spending $34.5 million for the project in December, the need for the new high school continued to be debated, especially as the school board considered a complicated redistricting plan designed to balance enrollments across the county school system.

Two years ago, South Carroll parents used enrollment numbers to persuade the county to change its plans for a new school in Westminster. The school board relocated the planned high school -- approved by the state -- to South Carroll, where Century High will open. When Westminster parents complained that their school had been stolen, the commissioners promised another would be built.

"I think a lot of people have forgotten that commitment," Dell said in an interview after the afternoon meeting. "It's not like we just started yesterday to talk about this school."

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