A power-shovel operator was busy Friday afternoon digging the trenches that will hold the footings of a $59 million building that school officials are counting on to ease overcrowding in schools throughout the county.
When completed in 2007, the Patterson Mill middle and high school complex just south of Bel Air is expected to be the focus of the first countywide redistricting plan since the 1980s.
County Executive James M. Harkins included slightly more than $28 million in his budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 for construction of Patterson Mill, a complex on 79 acres that is to have 1,600 students.
During an interview last week, Harkins called the start of Patterson Mill his "single proudest accomplishment" of his seven years as county executive.
"It would not have happened if it were not for my administration," he said. "We went out on a limb to forward fund that project. That's a tough thing to do."
Forward funding is when the county pays the full cost of the school, with a hope - but no commitment - that the state later will chip in its traditional 50 percent of the price.
Harkins, who is leaving at the end of the month to take a job in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's administration, expressed confidence that state funding for the school would come in the near future.
The school will be located off the intersection of Emmorton and Patterson Mill roads, on a lot that county acquired in the early 1990s.
"This will be the first new high school since C. Milton Wright opened in 1980," said Donald R. Morrison, a school system spokesman.
He excluded the new Aberdeen High, which opened last year, because it was a replacement for an existing school.
Morrison said the Patterson Mill complex could affect students in five attendance areas and 10 middle and high schools. They include: Fallston Middle, Fallston High, C. Milton Wright, Bel Air Middle, Bel Air High, Aberdeen Middle, Aberdeen High, Southampton Middle, Edgewood Middle and Edgewood High.
He said the school system's Technical Advisory Committee on Balancing Enrollment will begin looking at redistricting in October and make its recommendations to Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas in November.
After public hearings, Morrison said, Haas could make her suggestions to the Board of Education in December - but that schedule might be altered.
Patterson Mill is being designed with a "Main Street" theme, Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for schools, has said. She said it would juxtapose such common areas as the school office and auditorium with quieter academic wings, called "houses," in the rear of the school.
School officials saw similar designs in Carroll, Kent and Montgomery counties and liked them.
Harkins first disclosed plans to move ahead on the Patterson Mill project in May 2004, even without financial assistance from the state.
The decision came at a time when concerned parents were packing the County Council chambers during meetings to express their concerns about overcrowding in schools.
They said schools with 20 percent to 25 percent more students than they were designed to accommodate represented a safety hazard and were not conducive to learning.