Harford County needs a new school to relieve overcrowding at a number of area elementary schools. The questions are, where will it be built and which schools will get relief? The answer depends on which public officials you ask.
President of the Board of Education Patrick Hess and County Executive David Craig called a surprise press conference last December to announce that a school now known as Campus Hills Elementary planned on Schucks Road would move forward. And that plans for Red Pump Elementary School, which had been the school board’s top priority, would be deferred.
The County Council was stunned. First, because it was not consulted about the Board’s decision, which impacts areas under their purview including public utilities, traffic and zoning. Second, because it hadn’t seen the case the School Board said it made to convince the County Executive that Campus Hills should win out over Red Pump. The Council decided to launch its own investigation, which culminated in a report and a series of private meetings between members of the Council and HCPS. But it has become apparent over the past few days that no agreement has been reached and new questions have been raised about who and what is actually behind the switch.
The Board of Education presented its rationale favoring Campus Hills in a PowerPoint presentation at its meeting Monday night, which focused on Forest Lakes, Forest Hill, Hickory, Fountain Green and Prospect Mill Elementary Schools. All of these schools will get relief no matter which school is built. But missing from the Board’s presentation was Youths Benefit Elementary which is projected to be 240 students over capacity in 2012 and in the vicinity of Red Pump.
Board President Hess opened the discussion by asking, “Why Campus Hills over Red Pump?” and answering “We usually build the schools where the children are.”
Odd, because an analysis by Dagger reader Larry produced the following maps, albeit of a 1 ½ mile radius around each school, showing Red Pump surrounded by plenty of housing developments, while Campus Hills, which is outside the development envelope, appears isolated:
Red Pump School Site
Campus Hills School Site
Hess went on to say he had wanted to hash out the issue in public, but County Council President Billy Boniface would not agree, saying Boniface thought private meetings would be more productive. Hess said “I believe the [Council’s] report should be made public.”
Hess also read aloud from a letter from Senator Barry Glassman asking Governor Martin O’Malley to “hold any planning or funding approvals” for Campus Hills. In the letter, Glassman notes the Campus Hills site is not in a priority funding area and has water, sewer and traffic issues. Glassman’s letter also said that the Campus Hills site is under review by the County Council and asked the Governor “not to move on this project until we have had an opportunity to look at all the local implications and possible alternatives.”
The entire text of Glassman’s letter was also posted on the boardroom’s large presentation screen with the words “Confidential. Thanks, BG” handwritten across the front. Hess said “We elect people to go to Annapolis to bring funding home to us” and referred to Glassman’s letter saying “It’s just wrong.”
In a phone interview, Senator Glassman noted that no State funding is available for either school, so no funding could be withheld. He also said the letter to the Governor was not confidential, it was copied to several other recipients and he wrote the “confidential” note on a copy given to a third party (who obviously ignored it.) The second page of the letter obtained by The Dagger was not posted at the board meeting, but showed the letter was copied to several other public officials.
Board President Hess went on to note that a letter from the Executive Director of the Interagency Committee on State School Construction David Lever to Senator Glassman said that Red Pump was no longer eligible for state reimbursement of funds forwarded by the county because sewer service was unlikely to be provided by the deadline of December 2010, but that Campus Hills was eligible for reimbursement.
However, there had been public testimony earlier in the board meeting from engineers Frederick Ward Associates contradicting the claim about the sewer service. And sources say that the letter from Lever at the Interagency Committee (IAC) was the result of advice from the Maryland Department of Planning following a personal appeal from County Executive Craig who had stayed out of the debate, at least publicly.
Senator Glassman later requested a clarification from David Lever and received a second letter indicating that the IAC approved Campus Hills even though it is outside of the Priority Funding Area, in part because HCPS informed the IAC that no site other than Campus Hills was available for a school. This was despite the fact that the IAC had previously approved the Red Pump location pending resolution of the sewer issue there.
Hess concluded his remarks at the board meeting by saying that whichever school is ultimately built, it won’t open until 2012, adding “2011 is gone.”
Various board members took the opportunity to bash the County Council for questioning the board’s decision, at times raising questions about motives.
Board member Robin Rich linked the Council’s behavior to that of the Harford County Delegation, calling it a “virus” and apologized to the staff for having to make the case for Campus Hills several times. However, the report Monday night was the first detailed presentation made by HCPS in public. Rich also called the discussion a “bloody waste of time” saying it was “asinine” and speculated that the Council’s interest in the school decision “has everything to do with ego.” She went on to address a comment directly to Harford County Councilman Richard Slutzky (District E) who Rich said was smiling in the audience.
Later in a phone interview Slutzky, who had conducted the Council’s investigation into the choice of which school to fund said “ I was smiling because I was so amazed that certain board of education members who constantly congratulate themselves in carrying out investigations and doing their homework had so little facts and details about these projects.” It has since come to light that the details of the meetings between Council members and Board President Hess, Interim Superintendent Skebeck and senior staff were not shared with all school board members.
Board member Mark Wolkow suggested ulterior motives were behind the Council’s objections, saying the board was “blindsided by issues” that have “all been debunked.” Wolkow said, “As a citizen and a member of the board I’d like to know the truth.”
County Council Calls on County Executive to Defend Decision on Campus Hills
At the County Council meeting Tuesday night, Council President Billy Boniface read aloud from a letter being sent with the consent of the Council to Board of Education President Hess and Interim Superintendent Patricia Skebeck noting that expenditures at the Campus Hills (a.k.a. Schucks Road) site had continued despite the Council’s request to hold off and calling on the County Executive to defend the decision to halt Red Pump and proceed with Campus Hills.
Here is an excerpt from the letter:
It’s apparent by the latest financial reports that expenditures are continuing at the Schucks Road site regardless of our request to hold off. We can only assume that the Administration has instructed you to proceed as planned with Schucks Road as the location.
As I stated in my letter of January 20, due to the current economic crisis and its effect on county revenues, my colleagues and I have become increasingly concerned with the potential debt obligation that future bonds sales will create. We can’t ask the citizens of Harford County to assume any additional tax burden, especially now. It’s critical that the County Executive informs us of how he plans to deal with the many problems that come along with this new site.
At the meeting I attended, Interim Superintendent Skebeck expressed frustration at not knowing how to proceed. I can assure you that we share her frustration. While you have been forthcoming in the reasoning behind your decision, the County Executive has not. Ultimately it is he who has the responsibility to request and defend this change in direction. Hopefully County Executive Craig will be presenting the Council with a comprehensive plan dealing with the multitude of issues that this decision presents.
What is not yet known is how much money has been spent by the school board since the Council asked them not to proceed and who will be liable if those expenditures turn out to be unauthorized.
County Executive Craig has not requested the Council’s approval of the bond sale to fund Campus Hills, nor has he requested that the underlying property be transferred as excess to the school board. Such approvals are needed to complete any school construction project.
Boniface said that the decision to walk away from the Red Pump project didn’t make sense given that $2,463,000 had already been expended and $3.5 million in bonds had been sold to support the project that was “shovel ready” before it was halted. He also contrasted the remaining concern at Red Pump, the sewer issue, with the cost of millions in road improvements needed around Campus Hills and said the results of the Council’s investigation would be posted on the county’s web site shortly.
Boniface also said that the decision to proceed with Campus Hills “sends up a red flag” adding that opening a school outside the designated growth area would create pressure to expand development. He concluded by saying “I’ve learned when something doesn’t make sense, there’s usually something political” behind it. He added that the Council is “elected to question how money is spent and will continue” to do so.