Another in an occasional series of informal reports, analysis and opinion based on a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education.
The Harford County Board of Education voted last week to request funding for new school buildings to replace Havre de Grace High and Fallston’s Youth’s Benefit Elementary, plus significant upgrades to Joppatowne High. The decision to add Havre de Grace to their funding request was thorny for school board members, and a victory for County Executive David Craig.
Prior to the decision last Monday, Harford County Public Schools had a priority list for replacing aged and outmoded schools that included Youth’s Benefit and Joppatowne, but the list did not include Havre de Grace High.
County Executive Craig, who has deep roots in Havre de Grace, pushed for the high school to be added to the school’s priority list. He argued that his administration, and Havre de Grace taxpayers, supported building new schools in other parts of Harford County and it was time to replace the county’s oldest high school.
Lobbying school board members both in public and in private, Craig said he would ask the county council to fund replacement buildings for Havre de Grace High and Youth’s Benefit, beginning in fiscal year 2014. Because the school system depends on state and county governments for funding and the county executive plays a key role, Craig’s insistence that Havre de Grace be a priority proved difficult for the school board to ignore.
In addition, Harford Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback never weighed in on whether a new Havre de Grace High should trump other priorities established by HCPS based on need. Such projects included William Paca Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon, John Archer School in Bel Air, and Joppatowne High. Surprisingly, Tomback deferred instead to Craig’s priorities by recommending Havre de Grace HS and Youth’s Benefit as the only replacement projects in the schools’ capital budget request for next year, subject to board approval.
Against that backdrop and at the first school board meeting since the sudden death of School Board President Leonard Wheeler, board members wrestled with their capital budget decision Monday. Approval of the fiscal year 2014 budget came in a divided vote before a standing-room-only crowd of advocates for Havre de Grace HS, Youth’s Benefit ES, Joppatowne HS and the John Archer School.
Legal Questions and a “Vexing” Decision
Questioning the county executive’s legal authority to essentially set school priorities, Board Member Bob Frisch made a motion to remove Havre de Grace HS from the superintendent’s recommended budget. “To set the order of projects is one of our charges as a body,” Frisch said, “It’s not right for Havre de Grace to jump in front of other schools.” Warning that the move would set a bad precedent, Frisch argued that the process should be “a two-way dialogue and not dictation”. Instead, Frisch said, the school board should delay Havre de Grace HS and await the results of an independent analysis of school facilities. The planned study, Frisch said, could be ready for next year and would take the politics out of future decision making. Frisch’s motion was seconded by Board Member Joe Hau, but it failed in a vote of 6 to 2.
Although he voted to keep Havre de Grace HS in the budget, Board Member Jim Thornton stressed the difficulty of his decision under the circumstances. “It’s a mess,” he said. After reviewing state education law, Thornton said he believed the executive branch could not impose priorities on the school board, but asked for a legal review to resolve the issue for the future. In an apparent effort to highlight other needed projects, Thornton proposed a budget amendment to add the board’s top-five major capital projects to the budget for next year. After noting that the top five would cost more than $200 million, Thornton withdrew his motion. He later added that he appreciated the county executive’s past support for education.
Board Member Cassandra Beverley called the decision on Havre de Grace High School “vexing”. She voted to keep the school in the budget request, noting that the school board is not a funding authority and new facilities were needed. She likened the situation to a parent who would decline a scholarship offered to one child because it was not offered to another. Other board members agreed.
The newest member of the board, Tom Fitzpatrick of Havre de Grace, warned that if the board left Havre de Grace HS out of the budget, the county executive and the schools would be in conflict when the time came for Harford County to lobby the state for capital funding. Amid such a conflict, Fitzpatrick said, “everyone loses”, because state officials value a united front for funding requests.
Joppatowne High School Amendment
Joppatowne High School will get upgrades under a budget amendment offered by Board Member Nancy Reynolds and unanimously approved by the board. Planned improvements will be budgeted over a two-year period and include new roofing and HVAC upgrades, new windows and exterior doors, bathroom fixtures, interior lighting, student lockers, stadium press box improvements and a stadium turf replacement. A complete list of improvements can be found on pages 24 – 26 of the Joppatowne High School Scope Study.
In a related move designed to offset the cost of the Joppatowne upgrades, planned upgrades to the HVAC system at Fallston High School next year are to be budgeted over two years instead of one.
An overall capital budget request exceeding $60 million was approved as amended by a vote of 7 to 1. Bob Frisch voted “no, on principle”, he said. A copy of the final budget will not be available until later this week at the earliest, according to a spokesperson for HCPS.
Funding for the budget request is far from assured. In the last budget cycle, a majority of the Harford County Council pushed back against Craig’s plans for Havre de Grace, citing a lack of support from the school board, limited funds and the pending countywide analysis of school facilities.
Bob Thomas, a spokesman for Craig, said immediately after the vote that some board members didn’t understand the county executive’s authority under the Harford County Charter, which he said Craig confirmed with the county attorney. Craig appreciated the concerns raised, Thomas said, but he is “adamant” that he will continue to put forward the budgets that are needed to address the schools.
As the board meeting drew to a close, Craig arrived but remained near the back of the boardroom. In response to a question from The Dagger, Craig said he was pleased with the outcome of the vote. Asked about the funding approval that will be needed from the county council for Havre de Grace High, Craig noted that one of their concerns the last time around was a lack of support from the school board.