Harford school board delays action on Havre de Grace High replacement

The Harford County Board of Education could not muster enough votes Monday to take action on the educational specifications for the $86.8 million replacement for Havre de Grace High School and Middle School.

The board will not review the matter again for another four weeks, meaning Harford County Public Schools officials must hustle to meet tight state deadlines to ensure continued funding for the project.

Several board members noted the majority of the nine-member board, who were appointed or elected between 2010 and 2012, have not been part of the planning process for a school construction project of this magnitude.

In addition, board members Thomas Fitzpatrick, Joseph Hau and Arthur Kaff were absent.

"There's a lot of material here that we should digest," board member James Thornton, who stressed he supports the Havre de Grace school replacement project, said.

The board members at the meeting agreed to schedule a work session for further discussion of the nearly 200-page document, despite concerns expressed by members of the school system leadership team that they must adhere to a tight state timeline to ensure construction funding will be available during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, and the building can open in time for the 2017-2018 school year.

"This is the ideal schedule, if all the funding falls into place and everything proceeds smoothly through the process," Ariana Langford, facilities planner for the school system, explained.

A motion to accept Superintendent Barbara Canavan's recommendation to approve the specs Monday passed 4-2. Thornton, along with board members Alysson Krchnavy, Cassandra Beverley and board President Nancy Reynolds voted in favor of it, and board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo and member Robert Frisch voted against it.

At least five affirmative votes are needed for the board to pass a measure, according to board lawyer Patrick Spicer, so the specifications will be back on the agenda for the board's Aug. 18 meeting.

The educational specifications, or "edspecs," as they are known to school officials, lay out the proposed educational uses of the building.

The edspecs were developed with input from Harford County Public Schools officials, representatives of the design firm Grimm & Parker Architects, state education officials, Havre de Grace city officials and students, parents, faculty and staff of the middle and high school.

The specifications call for a 240,000-square-foot building, enough space to accommodate about 1,300 students in sixth through 12th grade initially, with extra space to hold up to 1,600 students.

The student body would include 150 high school students who would participate in a magnet program, which school officials expect will be focused on computer science or information technology.

Thornton and Frisch said they are concerned about the cost of building such a large facility – with the added cost of a magnet program – when about 1,100 students are enrolled in the current middle and high schools, and the enrollment is expected to remain below 1,150 through 2020, according to the edspecs.

"There are a lot of questions, and I'm not ready to hang my hat on committing excessive amounts of money on questionable outcomes," Frisch said.

There were 545 students attending the middle school last year, 585 at the high school, according to the most current school system enrollment report.

The edspecs are used by the design team to develop the schematic designs for the building, which will be built on the current middle school site bordered by the Amtrak rail line, Juniata Street and Lewis Lane.

The schematic designs must be submitted to the state by Sept. 1 to ensure the project qualifies for continued state funding, and the more detailed design development must be submitted by Nov. 1 to qualify for FY2016 construction funding, Langford explained.

She noted Havre de Grace's designation by the state as a sustainable community in 2012 helped the school system get state approval for the project, and it is the first school in Maryland to get planning approval under the sustainable community designation.

"We are building a community school," she said.

School officials are using the Patterson Mill Middle and High School complex south of Bel Air as a guideline for the Havre de Grace project. Patterson Mill was completed in 2007 at a cost of $62.7 million. Two other secondary schools – replacements for Bel Air High School and Edgewood High School – were completed in 2009 and 2010 at a cost of $81.1 million and $83.4 million, respectively.

Krchnavy, who has been on the board since 2008 and is the only sitting school board member who has been through similar school construction processes, stressed the need to keep to the timeline, and noted the project as proposed has the support of the Havre de Grace community.

"I want to be able to move forward in a timely and effective fashion," she said.

Havre de Grace Middle School, currently on Lewis Lane, was built in 1967 and has not been through major renovations since then, according to the edspecs.

The high school dates to 1955, but the main building was extensively rebuilt in the early 1980s; the auditorium was build in the 1970s. Havre de Grace Middle School, completed in 1967, is the county's oldest by three years.

"I fully support the edspecs that the committee has worked on," HHS Principal James Reynolds told the school board. "As we get through the stages, you will see it's going to be an incredible opportunity for the students at Havre de Grace."

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