Faced with soaring land prices and construction costs, projected population surges and the state's reluctance to fund new schools, Harford officials have vowed to move forward with school projects and are assessing what new buildings the county will need in the next decade.
"We are working on school sites every day, constantly looking for land," said Lorraine Costello, the county administration director. "We are scanning daily what is out there, and we are banking land not just for school sites but for libraries and recreation fields."
Additional financial assistance from the state recently became available to the counties. In a change of policy announced this month, the state will use proceeds from tax-exempt bonds to reimburse local jurisdictions for forward-funded costs related to school construction, if those projects had received planning approval from the state. Previously, the state would repay only with available money, a method known as "pay-go."
The change will ensure timely reimbursement, "since the state's capacity to provide pay-go funds for school construction has been limited in recent years and remains uncertain for the future," according to a letter to state school superintendents from David Lever, executive director of Maryland's public school construction program.
Although the policy shift will help with funding, the state still will not approve new schools until classrooms can be filled. That requirement practically forces counties to forward-fund schools, county officials said.
"It is tough to know where your demand for schools is going to be at any given time," said John R. Scotten Jr., county treasurer. "It is a real balancing act, where need always outstrips available resources."
Costello said, "The picture totally changes when you add BRAC."
She was referring to the national military base realignment, which could add more than 8,000 households to Harford County, according to a study by a Towson University think tank. Timing construction so that classrooms will be ready for the influx of students is critical and cannot wait for state funding.
"We know the need is there and the need is urgent," Costello said. "The state is trying to help, but we can't wait for the state to get behind school construction."
Harford is forward-funding Edgewood and Bel Air high schools, at a cost approaching $150 million.
In rapidly growing counties such as Harford, where the school-age population is nearly 41,000, land acquisition is critical to the future of schools, officials said.
The Board of Education has made another elementary school for Bel Air its top priority for state funding this year. But without a 15-acre site, funding is unlikely, education officials said.
"The state has to approve the site and everything about it," Costello said.
Officials cannot divulge yet whether they have land for an elementary school to serve the northern area of the county seat. Typically, schools are situated within the county's development area, where public water and sewer are available.
"We are looking for 20 acres and competing in a hot market," said Thomas L. Fidler Jr., board vice president. "Let's look on the periphery of the development envelope."
Crowded schools are a problem in many areas of the county.
"We are actively trying to build schools for students who are already here," said Lee Merrell, a school board member. "We have to look outside the development envelope."
If the county cannot settle on a property for the elementary school before the final list of construction projects goes to the state, school officials will alter priorities.
"Without a site, the elementary will drop down the priority list," said Kathleen Sanner, school system director of planning and construction.