The debate over whether Red Pump Elementary or Campus Hills Elementary will be built in the greater Bel Air area moved one step closer to Red Pump at a meeting between County Executive David Craig and PTA representatives Monday night.
Craig said repeatedly that he thought both schools would be needed but that the county council had the ability to remove funding from his upcoming FY10 budget for Campus Hills, and therefore the “ultimate decision” belonged to the council.
The Harford County Council supports building Red Pump Elementary and had approved the necessary appropriations to allow Red Pump to begin construction before the Harford County Board of Education shifted priorities and halted plans for Red Pump in favor of Campus Hills. But the issue won’t be entirely settled without the approval of the school board, which must vote to reverse their decision (which reversed an earlier decision) and put Red Pump back on track.
The meeting Monday was planned by PTA leaders from Prospect Mill, Fountain Green, Hickory, Forest Hills, Forest Lakes and Youth’s Benefit Elementary Schools. Also in attendance were Harford County Council President Billy Boniface, Council Vice President Dick Slutzky, Harford County Board of Education Member Alysson Krchnavy and Harford County Public Schools Chief of Administration Joe Licata.
“Not Building a School is Not an Option”
County Executive Craig made the case for Campus Hills Elementary School from a prepared statement and addressed some of the questions that had been raised by the county council about his involvement in the issue.
Craig said he wrote a letter in support of Campus Hills to Governor Martin O’Malley in response to questions from the Board of Public Works arising from an earlier letter written by State Senator Barry Glassman. Glassman’s letter had requested that state approvals for Campus Hills be put on hold until local issues were resolved. Craig said “it wasn’t that I snuck down there to see the Governor”.
Craig also discussed the state’s changing stance on whether the two forward-funded schools would be eligible for reimbursement. Craig said the Interagency Committee for School Construction (IAC) indicated Campus Hills would qualify for reimbursement. But Craig added that he believed that if a pumping station was built at Red Pump, the Committee would “probably put it [Red Pump] back” on the eligibility list.
On the question of how county funds were provided for Campus Hills despite the lack of bond sale approvals by the council, Craig’s written statement said “Both the county council auditor and the county’s bond counsel, which are both responsible to the county council, have expressed the legal opinion that funding approvals have followed standard practice.”
Craig said that he thought it was “unfortunate” that both schools couldn’t be built and later said he would build either Red Pump Elementary or Campus Hills or both, but that “not building a school is not an option.”
County Council President Billy Boniface and Council Vice President Dick Slutzky reiterated the council’s support for proceeding with Red Pump. Boniface said the Council had already approved over $15 million in construction funding for the school and “as far as we’re concerned, it should be under construction”
Slutzky said the “Council will support building whatever septic is needed at Red Pump” and that the state had agreed to support Red Pump until “people lobbied” against it but “we believe we can lobby to have it back.”
Board of Education Member Alysson Krchnavy said the board decided to defer one of the planned schools in order to be “fiscally responsible” and that “redistricting is going to be comprehensive no matter which school is built”. She then asked herself “OK, so Alysson which school do you want?” and then answered “I just want a school”.
Craig said “There will be money in my budget for a school” but that the “council will decide” which school to fund.
Prospect Mill PTA Overcrowding Committee Chairperson Janet Noone said she wasn’t concerned about which school got opened first because redistricting would need to be done either way and “all the schools are fabulous in the area” but she noted that Campus Hills had “all kinds of clouds” while Red Pump was “ready to go.”
A PTA representative from Forest Lakes Elementary said “just build a school, we don’t care where it is” although a representative from Fountain Green said she wanted to be sure the right school was built and she and others expressed some doubts about the septic issues at Red Pump.
Regarding the expansion of the development envelope near Campus Hills, some PTA members questioned why it was a concern. But Council President Boniface said the Master Plan was established with more citizen input than any other issue and that it was the law.
Questions were raised about relieving overcrowding at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School. Councilman Slutzky had asserted that opening Red Pump could provide relief for Youth’s Benefit although the school hadn’t been included in the school board’s original plan for relief because of a planned modernization and expansion of the school’s capacity. But County Executive Craig told the PTA that given the county’s current commitment to several forward funded projects, state funding would be sought for Youth’s Benefit and that funding would be an “unknown until 2011”.
Noting that the county council had offered to expand the capacity of either school from just under 700 seats to 800, a PTA officer from Forest Hills said that based on her experience, if the capacity of a school was to be expanded that the common areas such as the cafeteria and the gym should also be designed to accommodate more students.
With Craig’s support for building either Red Pump or Campus Hills first and with strong support from the council to proceed with Red Pump and the PTAs in agreement that a new school needed to move forward, the discussion moved to next steps.
Harford County Public Schools Chief of Administration Joe Licata said in response to a question that the bids for Red Pump had been accepted and the school board had been ready to award contracts at their next meeting before plans were halted. Licata said that if the board voted to reverse their decision, the law requires a minimum of 2 weeks to re-advertise bids before new contracts could be awarded.
Several PTA members in the audience said that Board of Education President Pat Hess told them that if Red Pump was the only school the council would fund, he would support building that school.
Craig said that his FY10 budget, which must go to the council by April 1st, had already gone to the printer and included the board of education’s latest request for Campus Hills. But if Red Pump was the choice, Craig said “we will make sure the [necessary] amendments go through.”
Board Member John Smilko, who did not attend the meeting with PTAs, said in an email he opposes Red Pump in part because he does not think state funding will happen for the school and that Red Pump would create a “redistricting headache” compared to Campus Hills. Other board members had also taken a strong stand in favor of building Campus Hills prior to Monday’s meeting, leaving open the question of how the votes will ultimately stack up.
Late word is that Board President Hess is working with county officials to move Red Pump forward, but PTA members also planned to contact the board to ask that a vote be put on their agenda as soon as possible. The next scheduled board business meeting is April 2nd at 7:00PM in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air.