Given the current economic meltdown, it’s not surprising that the Board of Education is scaling back plans to build two new elementary schools, opting to build just one new school instead. But the events surrounding the decision to build Campus Hills Elementary School instead of Red Pump Elementary are becoming surreal.
First came the surprise announcement on December 8th by County Executive David Craig, Board of Education President Pat Hess and Superintendent Jacqueline Haas that priorities had suddenly flipped. Red Pump Elementary, which had already been put out for bid and was to be completed by 2010, would be put on hold indefinitely. And the Board would move ahead with Campus Hills Elementary, which lags a year behind Red Pump in the planning process, is located outside the development envelope and is served by a congested intersection that will require dwindling state dollars to improve.
The County Council objected because they were not informed, let alone consulted, about the choice of which school to build. The Council approved the budget for both projects and they are key decision makers on issues surrounding the schools, including zoning, traffic and access to public utilities. The Council hinted that they might hold up the necessary approvals until their concerns were addressed.
The Council’s reaction prompted Board President Pat Hess to do a mea culpa, taking the blame for failing to notify the Council. But Hess’s version of events was contradicted days later by fellow Board member John Smilko, who said the County Executive was supposed to inform the Council.
At Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Smilko went on to suggest that there were plenty of reasons for the Board’s decision, but rather than articulate them, Smilko blasted the Council for “braying” about being left out of the loop. He said the Board would not reconsider their choice of Campus Hills and threatened to “fill the Council chambers with angry parents” if the Council did anything other than approve the move.
What Smilko didn’t mention was that comprehensive redistricting is being planned to bring enrollments in line with capacity at all of the over crowded schools in the area, including Prospect Mill, Fountain Green, Forest Lakes and Hickory Elementary, utilizing the 696 new seats that will be provided by whichever new school is built, be it Red Pump or Campus Hills.
Apparently not content to bite the hand that feeds the schools, Smilko went on to speculate about the reasons for the Council’s discontent, saying they were perhaps upset that they “didn’t get the credit for saving money” when the Board decided to build one school instead of two, adding “there’s no need to thank” the Board for their actions. No worries there.
But you have to wonder where the vitriol came from. No one has questioned the decision to build one school instead of two; it’s the choice of schools that needs to be justified to the people who pay the bills and to their representatives on the Council.
Finally, at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting, President Billy Boniface asked Education Liaison Dick Slutzky, who represents Aberdeen and Churchville, to gather more information about the reason for the choice of one school over the other and the relative cost factors involved, and to report back to the Council. Councilwoman Roni Chenowith, who represents Fallston, said she was amazed the Board of Education thinks the Council should not question how funds are spent and Councilman Dion Guthrie was just getting warmed up, saying Smilko’s comments were totally uncalled for, when President Boniface intervened.
Councilman Slutzky had already noted in the days following the decision that the factors cited by the Board to justify the choice of Campus Hills over Red Pump, i.e. declining budget revenues, declining enrollment and problems with water and sewer, affected each of the proposed projects.
Now it turns out that one of those factors was overstated by Harford County Public Schools. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the HCPS press release:
“However, recently released school enrollment data for the 2008 – 2009 school year, revealed a sharp drop system-wide in elementary school enrollment. Specifically, elementary student enrollment declined by more than 850 students this year.”
A drop of 850 students in one year would be sharp, but the number is way off. As Dagger Reader Larry discovered, the actual decline in elementary school enrollment was 175 students, a figure which has since been confirmed by school system personnel. There may still be justification for building one school instead of two, but considering the rising level of intrigue, it’s important to get the facts straight.
So what’s next? The Council will likely take up the matter at a future meeting and will decide whether to grant the necessary approvals.
Whatever the outcome, there will be another level of impact below the surface that often occurs whenever a new school is built. Such as, who the winners and losers will be in the shelter industry when moratoriums are lifted in the surrounding school districts.
This year, we’ll also get to see who has applied for up-zoning when the latest rezoning requests are made public – the deadline for filing was December 15th. And if Campus Hills ultimately gets the nod, who will argue that public water and sewer should be extended from the edge of the development envelope out to the new school and therefore, to all of the lucky landowners in between.