Harford board questions school funding priorities

There was no indication following a two-hour work session in Bel Air Thursday evening that members of the Harford County Board of Education will be inclined to significantly change the school system's 2013 Capital Improvement Program when it comes up for final approval later this month.

But one of the newer board members in particular had several questions about the county government's support for the capital program, which was the subject of the work session.

As proposed by the school administration, the program contains several controversial elements, including the priority for relocation of the John Archer School for special education students to the campus of Bel Air Middle School and the delayed renovation of both Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston and William Paca Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon.

County council members representing the Bel Air, Fallston and Abingdon areas have expressed their concerns about the scheduling of the school renovation projects in the districts, as well as the planned John Archer move, which is also tied in with renovating the Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School on the same campus.

Their concern is fueled in part because the county spent so much money in the past dozen years to build the equivalent of five new high schools and two elementary schools, it can't possibly afford to fund future projects as promptly as their constituents want.

Board member Cassandra Beverley, elected last year to represent county council District A, which includes all of the Youth's Benefit and parts of the William Paca Old Post Road attendance areas, wanted to know Thursday if the school administration and the county government are on the same page with priorities in the capital program. Beverley is one of several new members who joined the board July 11.

"Based upon which school has priority, what is the county willing to fund…John Archer is the priority?" Beverley asked Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, following Brown's presentation to the board at the work session.

"I can't say," Brown replied. "I believe it is for the county that John Archer is a priority."

The Homestead-Wakefield renovation is ranked as the top priority project by the school administration in the 2013 capital plan, followed by the John Archer relocation and then HVAC improvements at Magnolia Middle School, North Harford Middle and Norrisville Elementary, roof replacement at Havre de Grace High School and HVAC installation at part of the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.

According to school system documents, the state funding agency agrees with the priorities, except that there is also the matter of the almost $11 million in state funding the county is still expecting toward the recently completed Red Pump Elementary School. The local cost share of the project has been spent.

In addition, the CEO air conditioning project, with its estimated cost of $4 million, would be completely funded by the county, according to the capital plan as proposed.

The Youth's Benefit and William Paca Old Post Road renovations sit at numbers seven and eight, respectively, on the priority list, meaning they are years away. Both schools have buildings that are not only old, they also lack air conditioning.

Brown said the Homestead-Wakefield project has local planning approval from the state Interagency Committee on School Construction, or IAC, which every project must have before the agency will consider approving state funds for design and construction.

Brown said the John Archer project does not have IAC local planning approval, but the school system has requested it.

$1 million master plan

Beverley also asked Brown about a plan to spend an estimated $1 million on an outside consultant to help the school system develop a long range facilities master plan, wondering if the expenditure could be justified giving the county government's strapped fiscal position. All the money involved would have to come from the county.

"What would the county get?" she asked.

"We are not looking at our needs as comprehensively as we should be," Brown replied, explaining the school system doesn't "have the people to do a more thorough analysis."

"I would rather do it the right way than the half way," he said. "When times do improve we will be better able to address our needs." He also said other school systems use outside help in developing and implementing their capital programs.

Brown was also questioned by Beverley and other board members about the schedule for stadium improvements at high schools, which Brown said also is dictated by the county government's willingness to fund them.

CMW stadium upgrade

Both Beverley and board member Robert Frisch, another of the board's elected members who represents Joppatowne and Edgewood, noted that C. Milton Wright High's stadium is first on the list for stadium upgrades, ahead of older schools such as Fallston and Joppatowne high schools.

The estimated cost on the stadium upgrades is $2.5 million. Frisch asked if the county is on board with spending the money for the C. Milton Wright upgrades and for those that will follow.

"They didn't object," Brown replied. "They need to decide what they can spend."

The work session Thursday was the first opportunity for five new board members, who took their seats on July 11, to ask Brown and other staff questions about the capital improvement program and the process involved in developing and implementing it.

The session was originally scheduled two days earlier for the evening of Aug. 30 but it was postponed after schools did not open that day because ofHurricane Irene.

The new meeting date and time were posted on the school system's website last Wednesday, Sept. 1, according Teri Kranefeld, the school system's manager of communications. Local media organizations, however, were not directly notified until shortly after noon Thursday, less than six hours prior to the work session.

Following the work session, James Thornton, one of the new appointed board members, said he will be interested to see the dynamic that evolves between the new board and the county government on capital program priorities since, he noted, the county executive and county council do have the final authority when it comes to providing most or all of the money for the majority of the projects.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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