Who's got the money? [Editorial]

The Aegis

Parents of students at two Harford County Public Schools whose replacements have been deferred in the last decade pleaded their cases for new schools before the Harford County Board of Education Monday night.

It’s not a new scene, and in fact is one played out with increasing regularity over the past decade.

New buildings for John Archer School and Homestead-Wakefield Elementary that once had been priorities in Harford County Public Schools capital improvement program have been deferred as priorities have changed. Parents with children at those schools have appeared before the board previously. A handful of Homestead-Wakefield students also spoke Monday, also not new.

School officials were certainly sympathetic and for the most part they blamed local elected officials, the county executive and county council, with some justification, as they and some of their predecessors are at least partly to blame.

Not enough blame was placed on state legislators and a succession of governors who have taken more and more away from local school financing, but the Harford board has certainly voiced those opinions, too, on prior occasions.

Both groups deserve all the blame they get, because local school construction in Maryland has fallen into a political morass from which there appears to be no end in sight.

Without getting into pointing fingers at specific individuals, we can say those with the most political pull are getting the projects they favor built first, right or wrong. There’s always been some of this associated with Maryland school construction, certainly since the state jumped in seemingly whole hog – well, half hog at least, in the 1960s and has gradually retreated since to the point where its providing on average maybe 30 percent of the hog and shrinking.

Locally, there was a time when Harford County government pretty much let the school board and school superintendent decide what needed to be built and when, except perhaps when it came to building a new administrative headquarters for HCPS, which pretty much became a budget non-starter, until the deal was struck for the current headquarters lease-purchase deal.

During the past decade, however, the elected officials have been injecting themselves more and more into what gets funded and built, thus the Red Pump Elementary School was built north of Bel Air, instead of a school near Harford Community College that school officials had decided upon.

Right or wrong, the rebuilding of Youth’s Benefit Elementary in Fallston and construction of a new middle and high school now underway in Havre de Grace, were basically County Council decisions taken away from school officials and at the expense of building new buildings to replace John Archer, Homestead-Wakefield and William Paca-Old Post Road in Abingdon which sport some of the school system’s oldest facilities.

To be clear, The Aegis has backed the Havre de Grace project editorially because both the high and middle schools there are the oldest secondary schools in the HCPS system and would have needed replacement, if not this decade, certainly in the next. And, we have supported replacing all three of the above mentioned elementary shools.

The problem is, there’s a finite amount of money available each year from the county, and less and less available from the state. The head of HCPS’ building program pointed out to the complaining parents and others on Monday that the current county administration – which criticized its predecessor for alleged over-borrowing to build schools and other public facilities during nearly 10 years prior to 2015 – has limited HCPS to one “big” project annually, so they can’t take on all the schools that are falling down at once.

That may in fact be sound fiscal policy, but try telling that to a kid sitting in a 1950s to 1960s era classroom at H-W or WPOPR, or to his parents, or to the parents of a special needs child attending 1960s era John Archer. These schools have had renovations over the years, but as the decades advance, replacement becomes the only reasonable and, we might add, financially sound, alternative.

Meanwhile, school officials, while recognizing those schools need replacement, have Joppatowne High School, which turned 46 this year, at the top of their list for what is called a “limited renovation.” The others may be moved up in priority, according to HCPS Chief of Administration Joseph Licata, as the school board continues to reivew and refine its 2020 capital improvement plan.

Bottom line, school officials, like parents, can only wish and cajole and harangue so much. It’s the politicians who hold the cards, but more importantly, the money to replace these school buildings.

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