Harford school construction plan needs a dose of reality

ConstructionEducationSocial IssuesJohn ArcherHavre de Grace

The latest school facilities construction plan, which was presented to the Harford County Board of Education during its meeting June 13, shows once again that the school system and the county government are not on the same page when it comes to planning future school construction.

The plan ranks the Homestead Wakefield Elementary reconstruction as the first priority, followed by construction of a new John Archer School, which would be built as an addition to Bel Air Middle.

Next in line behind those two will be the renovation or reconstruction of Youth's Benefit Elementary in Fallston, followed by the reconstruction of William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon.

The plan also continues to show the controversial Campus Hills Elementary project, shelved indefinitely by orders of the county government two years ago, followed by the renovation of Joppatowne High School, which as the plan states, would be completed in 2020-2021, just ahead of the current building's 50th anniversary.

Here are a couple of observations about this plan based on financial and political reality:

First off, everything is contingent on money being available for these projects, and more and more that means money from the county government, because the State of Maryland has all but exited the school construction funding business, especially as it relates to no-influence-in-Annapolis counties like Harford.

Second, this plan makes no allowances whatsoever for construction of a new Havre de Grace High School. The current county executive, a Havre de Grace High graduate, has already started the ball rolling for this project in the newest county budget, so the construction money can be locked into place well before he leaves office in late 2014. As his presumptive successor, Sen. Barry Glassman, is also an HHS graduate, anybody who is watching this project unfold politically would have to be a fool not to believe it is going to be advanced in priority, regardless of what school system officials say.

Third, those same school officials can complain all they want about priorities in this or any other plan, but after what happened in the Red Pump Elementary controversy, it has become clear that the county government, not the school system, has the final say over what schools will be built and in what order. After all, as noted previously, when the county controls the money, it's logical to expect the elected officials will decide how it gets spent.

Fourth, the Youth's Benefit and William Paca projects are likely to be shuffled farther and farther back, as is the Joppatowne High project. The two elementary schools are the only ones among 30 in the county whose buildings are not fully air-conditioned. As was seen already this month, when the mercury climbs, classes at both are disrupted, and time is missed. It clearly makes no sense to install air conditioning in buildings that are due for significant reconstruction, but this is also envisioned in the latest facilities plan, because, otherwise, six- and seven-year time frames to deal with this problem are unacceptable.

School officials claim, with justification, that they have to do the Homestead Wakefield job first, so the Bel Air campus can accommodate the new John Archer building. But here's the rub on this one, the school system and the county have known for at least five years that the John Archer mandate would have to be dealt with, and they still decided to address the elementary level overcrowding situation first by building the Red Pump school. From the county's standpoint, the land development community was demanding action, and decisions were made to build schools, rather than to redistrict to balance enrollment among existing schools, many which were as underused as the few in the greater Bel Air area that were overused.

While it makes little sense to replay the redistricting versus school building arguments of the past, the future construction plan continues to demonstrate that the school system goes one way, the county the other. Where is the blue ribbon Slutzky committee that is supposed to at least work to avoid future situations where school officials plan to build one school and the county officials come along and say, "No wait, this one first?" That panel is still meeting twice a year, or it was prior to redistricting being completed. Is it still being consulted, listened to?

The county can only mess around and shuffle the John Archer project back long enough before state officials will step in and order that school to be built. Unfortunately, the folks in Fallston will continue to wait for a new Youth's Benefit because, frankly, they weren't as important in the political scheme of things as was a developer. Now, they have legitimate concerns their wait will stretch longer.

The latest school facilities plan does nothing to alleviate those concerns, or the concerns of the folks in Abingdon, Edgewood and Joppatowne whose schools also need work, but good luck getting it done.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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