Harford school officials concerned over lack of capital funding

Harford County Public Schools officials are working with their counterparts across the state to find "alternative" and "creative" methods to raise money for badly-needed capital repairs that, in some cases, could get local school systems in trouble with regulators if maintenance continues to be put off because of a lack of funding.

Prominently cited in the school officials' concerns is maintenance and repair of stormwater management systems at the county's 50-plus school sites.

"This deferred funding that we've had in the last several years is starting to catch up to us," Joe Licata, HCPS chief of administration, said.

Licata and Superintendent Barbara Canavan are part of a statewide task force, made up of representatives of various school districts, that is working to find ways to get more state and local dollars flowing to capital projects, which Licata called a "revenue problem."

"Hopefully some creative people will come up with some creative options," Licata said.

One area where some creativity may be needed quickly is funding stormwater management facilities upgrades.

The Harford school board approved spending nearly $300,000 on contracts to upgrade stormwater management facilities in June 2013, as the county government ramped up its inspection of school stormwater facilities before the local stormwater fee, or "rain tax," which is a requirement of the state and federal governments to protect the Chesapeake Bay, took effect July 1, 2013.

More recently, the board approved a $120,000 contract in April to repair erosion damage to the 3-year-old stormwater management ponds at Red Pump Elementary School near Bel Air.

Licata said Monday the school system could face sanctions if the facilities are not brought up to code, and it would be stuck with the bill for the repairs, as well as any fines imposed.

He did not, however, identify specific stormwater facilities in need of repair, as he and his staff presented the school system's proposed capital improvement plan for the 2016 fiscal year at Monday night's school board meeting.

"This is the first snapshot that the board has of our capital projects," Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said.

Brown said school officials will work with "stakeholders" in and outside of the school system over the summer, and present a final version to the board in September to be adopted. The board-approved plan will then be sent to the state.

The CIP includes $74.9 million worth of capital project requests, including the replacement of Havre de Grace High School and Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, for which funding has been approved.

The plan also includes funding requests for projects such as $824,670 to replace the roof at Churchville Elementary School, $4.6 million for "systemic" improvements to the heating and cooling systems at Prospect Mill Elementary School, $21.5 million for "technology infrastructure" in anticipation of the advanced software and hardware needed to implement Common Core State Standards and PARCC testing and $600,000 for erosion and sediment control at the Hickory Annex Truck Wash stormwater management facilities.

Brown also presented the $33.6 million capital budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, a fraction of the more than $72 million school officials sought from the state and county.

"Why do we believe things are going to be different?" board member James Thornton asked, indicating the optimistic plan for FY2016.

Brown explained that school officials "have to advance what we believe we need."

"Based on all of the conversation, if you listen to the landscape, I don't see anything drastically changing in FY16 on the capital side," Thornton lamented.

He noted there would be "an even larger price tag," if the school system does not fully invest in its infrastructure.

Brown also presented the Educational Facilities Master Plan for 2014, a "planning tool" the school system must submit to the state each year.

That master plan shows funding available for Havre de Grace and Youth's Benefit, but on hold for long-term projects such as replacing Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, replacing the John Archer School for special needs students and replacing William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon.

Brown said school officials are waiting for the county's facilities master plan to be completed before seeking funding for those long-awaited projects. Meanwhile, the continuing delays of all three projects have left parents of children at those schools fuming.

The board had to vote on the facilities master plan, as it was its final session of the fiscal year, and the plan passed 9-1.

Board member Francis "Rick" Grambo cast the dissenting vote; he had also voted at Monday night's school board meeting against millions of dollars in construction contracts to replace Youth's Benefit.

One of the first three people to be elected to school board seats four years ago, Grambo did not seek re-election this year and has said he is prepared to move on when his term expires in July 2015.

Grambo noted Thursday that school buildings are built with a 50-year life-span and explained he doesn't see any sense in spending millions of potentially borrowed dollars on a building that would simply be torn down and replaced in 50 years.

He noted schools could end up being replaced yearly, as they reach the end of their life span.

"The spending isn't sustainable," he said. "The money has to come from somewhere."

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