Pushing back against a proposal by Harford County Executive David R. Craig to prioritize a $60 million future replacement for Havre de Grace High School, the Harford County Council voted on May 15th to delay the project in the county’s long term capital budget by at least two years. Council President Billy Boniface blasted Craig’s proposal of the project, which was not requested by the Harford County Board of Education, saying that the move, and a reordering by Craig of the school board’s stated capital priorities, “came out of left field.”
County Executive Craig proposed $20 million per year in funding for three years, beginning in fiscal year 2014, to replace Havre de Grace High School. In a 5 – 2 vote, the council action kept the project alive, but pushed the start date out to fiscal year 2016 and slashed funding in that year from $20 million to $4 million, which Council Vice President Dick Slutzky said was intended to cover the cost of engineering and design. The council action, which came in the form of a memorandum of change to the capital program, provided no additional funding for the project beyond 2016. Boniface said that Craig’s plan was “misleading to the people of Havre de Grace and based on empty promises.”
Craig put the Havre de Grace High School replacement project in his proposed Six-Year Capital improvement Program (CIP) budget, which outlines school projects to be paid for in fiscal year 2013 and prioritizes projects for the following five years, subject to funding availability. No funding for Havre de Grace was requested in fiscal year 2013. However, the creation and adoption of the Six-Year CIP is part of the county budget process.
Council President Boniface said that he and Council Vice President Dick Slutzky met with school officials, including School Board President Leonard Wheeler and Superintendent Robert Tomback, who told them they had not been consulted about the move on Havre de Grace High School or the other changes proposed by Craig. “It, too, came out of left field to them,” Boniface said. “I get it, the county executive lives in Havre de Grace, he wants a high school in Havre de Grace, he went there, his grandchildren are going to go there, I get it ” Boniface said, adding that he also lives in the Havre de Grace High School district. “But there’s a process,” Boniface said, “and the process involves collaboration… that’s what leadership is about, bringing people together in finding solutions.”
Boniface also took Craig to task for acting before the results are known from an upcoming independent analysis of all county facilities, including schools. The so-called “Countywide Facilities Master Plan” will review the condition of existing facilities and be used to prioritize facility needs. Boniface said the plan would provide a common sense basis for decision-making, “we have got to get away from doing everything based on politics,” he said.
Speaking of Craig’s proposals for schools in future years, Boniface said, “Every dollar that [the county executive] puts in his budget for us to go to the bank and borrow, he will never have to figure out how to pay for it.” Craig is serving a second term as county executive and cannot run again in 2014 due to term limits.
Craig has argued that Havre de Grace is the oldest high school in the county and the only one never scheduled for renovation. During his tenure, Craig said, he accelerated plans for new facilities for Bel Air and Edgewood high schools, along with an expansion for Aberdeen High.
Craig declined to comment on the council action. In response to questions from The Dagger, Craig said through a spokesman that he is reserving comment until the budget process is concluded.
Councilman Slutzky, representing Aberdeen, said at the council meeting that all projects would be considered if money was available, but in the current economic climate, the focus should be on the priorities identified by the school board. Slutzky said that the county forward funded $370 million for schools in the last seven years, getting part of that back in the form of reimbursements from the state. The state shares the cost of school construction with local governments, but Slutzky said that the state’s contribution as a percentage of total costs had dwindled over the years. Boniface said that forward funding new schools had quadrupled the county debt and put the county in a “cautions situation.”
No Change to Craig’s Other Capital School Priorities
The council made no other changes to Craig’s CIP, which reordered school board priorities involving Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, and a dual project involving the John Archer School and a related renovation of Homestead Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air.
Also included as a top priority in Craig’s CIP is a replacement school for Youth’s Benefit, with funding to begin in fiscal year 2014, the same year as his proposal for Havre de Grace High. Boniface said that the council would not support two projects at once, and said school officials told him that the state was unlikely to do so either. However, he said that the Youth’s Benefit project, which was requested by the school board , was likely to gain funding support from the council in future years. He also defended a recent decision by the school board to install air conditioning in the Youth’s Benefit primary building, noting that a replacement project of the two-building school would take three to four years to complete once funding was secured.
Number two on Craig’s list of priorities is the relocation of the John Archer School and a related modernization for Homestead Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, with funding to begin in 2016. Funding for a modernization of William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon is planned for fiscal year 2017. All plans are subject to funding availability and approvals by the school board and county council in future budget years.
Casting one of the two dissenting votes on the delay for Havre de Grace High School, Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, representing Havre de Grace, said that she had voted for upgrades to schools in every other district, but “we have not been equitable in the way we have funded capital projects.”
Lisanti listed the many times the school board had shifted priorities in recent years and pointed to systemic problems in the state process for funding capital projects for schools, which she said needed to be fixed. “I don’t think it’s fair that there are zip codes that have really cool schools…I don’t think it’s fair that there are schools in the county that have deplorable conditions,” Lisanti said.