Officials move forward with plan for school in Bel Air area

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Harford County is moving ahead with plans for the construction and financing of the Patterson Mill middle and high school complex, a project government and school officials say is much-needed to ease the county's current school crisis.

On Thursday, Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for the school system, met with architects to start the design work. She said she hopes to make a recommendation to the Board of Education at its meeting Sept. 8.

As Sanner proceeds with planning, County Executive James M. Harkins and the County Council are pursuing funding sources to pay for the $42.6 million project.

If things go as planned, the new complex would open in 2007. It would be the first new high school in the county in nearly 30 years.

Last week, the council unanimously voted to have the county's legislative delegation seek enabling legislation for revenue sources to pay for the school complex.

In a letter to Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the county legislative delegation, and to the other members, Council President Robert S. Wagner said the council is committed to the school project at Patterson Mill.

He wrote that the council wants the ability to impose, at its discretion, an impact fee or building excise tax; an increase in the transfer tax on home sales to 1.5 percent from 1 percent; and a repeal of the $30,000 transfer tax exemption for owner-occupied residences.

Wagner said the council "would be amenable to any other funding source that could be found within state law as a possible revenue stream."

The school complex will be on a 79-acre tract southeast of Bel Air that was acquired by the county in 1993.

In addition to schools, the site will contain a small, two-bay Fire Department substation on 4 acres close to Patterson Mill Road and Route 924.

The substation was requested by Harkins to improve the Fire Department's response time in one of the fastest-growing sections of the county.

To keep down the cost of the project, Sanner said, the middle and high schools would share a structure.

At the request of Harkins, the complex will be designed to accommodate 1,600 students - 900 in the high school and 700 in the middle school. The original plan called for a school for 1,050 students.

Sanner said there are also plans for "flexible space" that would allow for an increase in the number of middle school pupils. It would also accommodate them as they moved to the high school.

When it opens, Patterson Mill will represent a giant step toward easing the crowding at schools in the Bel Air area.

"It will reduce the attendance at six other schools below their capacity and give them room to grow," Sanner said.

Overcrowded schools that would benefit from the new schools include Bel Air Middle, Southampton Middle, Fallston Middle, Bel Air High, C. Milton Wright High and Fallston High.

Last year, the Harkins Commission on School Construction Planning determined the need for a new middle and high school and recommended the Patterson Mill site.

Admitting that Harford County is in the midst of a public school crisis, Harkins first disclosed plans for the county to move ahead on the Patterson Mill project, even without financial assistance from the state, in May.

"We desperately need it," human resources Director James C. Richardson said at the time. "There is no debate. It has to be done."

In a process called forward funding, the county will pay for the schools - with hope, but no assurance - that the state will contribute a share sometime in the future.

The state normally pays about 50 percent of the cost of planning, designing, building and equipping a new school.

Glassman said the funds are tight in Annapolis this year and the situation is not expected to improve next year. "The bucket is empty," he told council members last month. "The governor does not have anything to pour out to us."

To address community concerns, Sanner said, a traffic study was done and found that Patterson Mill Road could handle the additional traffic from the school. To help the flow of traffic, a light signal will be installed at Patterson Mill Road and Route 924.

Sanner said there would also be efforts to control noise by locating activities, including the football stadium, as far from neighboring houses as possible.

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