The county executive, the councilwoman and the school board agree on one point: Upgrading the antiquated Havre de Grace High School is a priority capital project. Whether the upgrade will be through a replacement building, a modernization of the existing facilities or a third option is where opinions, and millions in taxpayer dollars, have yet to converge.
County Executive Craig, the driving force behind the Havre de Grace project, wants a replacement facility that was outlined in a scope study commissioned by Harford County Public Schools.
Councilwoman Lisanti, representing District F (Havre de Grace), wants further study through a bipartisan advisory committee.
The Harford County Board of Education wants more choices to consider, including a possible middle/high school combination.
The school board will ultimately decide how Havre de Grace High will be upgraded. However, Craig and Lisanti play a role in funding schools, and they each came to the December 3rd school board meeting to make their respective cases to the board.
Just prior to hearing comments from Craig and Lisanti, board members delayed for a second time their decision on the options presented thus far. The options were part of a scope study that was first presented to the board on November 5th, outlining three choices: Limited renovation of the existing facilities (at a cost of $49 million); modernization ($61 – 65 million) and a complete school replacement ($71 million).
The Replacement Option
The replacement school would be built on an area of the school campus now occupied by ball fields, with the advantage of allowing construction without disrupting school operations. Since the existing facility consists of two school buildings separated by Congress Avenue, the replacement school would also remove a safety problem for students crossing the street before and after school hours. (Congress Avenue is closed during school hours)
Superintendent Robert Tomback has recommended the replacement option, but board members have expressed concerns, including the plan to increase capacity in the new building from 850 students up to 1148. Current enrollment at Havre de Grace High is fewer than 700 students, according to the latest available figures.
In addition, portions of the new construction, mainly the planned entry road, lie within a 100 year flood plain. The planned entry road would also require arched culverts to be built over branches of the flood-prone Lilly Run. While Lilly Run is to undergo a planned restoration, board members have asked whether the school system might be required to contribute to the cost.
Lastly, board members raised concerns about the proximity of the proposed site to the Amtrak railroad tracks.
Making the case for the replacement option, County Executive David Craig said at the December 3rd school board meeting that the classroom capacity could be scaled back, thus lowering the cost of the new school. The core spaces, such as the cafeteria and gymnasium, should remain at 1100 students, he said, to allow for potential growth along with future classroom additions.
The Lilly Run restoration would come at no cost the school system, Craig said.
Regarding the railroad, Craig said that the proximity was not new.
If the replacement option were chosen, Craig said, HCPS could save money by surplusing the site with the existing school buildings to Harford County, which would be responsible for the cost of demolition. The site might then be utilized by the Harford County Public Library, Craig said.
In addition to his public comments, Craig wrote a letter in response to the board’s concerns, a copy of which appears below.
Councilwoman Lisanti praised the board for taking additional time to consider their decision, and called for the appointment of a bi-partisan advisory committee to study the modernization and replacement options. She said that the limited renovation option failed to meet basic HCPS standards and should not be considered.
Of the remaining two options, Lisanti said that each had advantages and disadvantages. However, she said there were too many unresolved issues to be decided in the month since the options were first presented. Among the issues requiring further study she said were the future capacity needs, and the feasibility of permanently closing Congress Avenue.
In a letter to the board accompanying her remarks, Lisanti wrote:
“As county leaders, we have often been rightfully criticized for making hasty school construction decisions in solitude and without the benefit and cooperation of key decision-makers. That practice must end this evening: therefore, I ask that you appoint a bipartisan advisory committee made up of two representatives from each of our key partners: the Board of Education, Delegation, County Executive, County Council and City of Havre de Grace, in order to advance the planning process.
Together we can thoroughly examine the details, hidden cost and feasibility of each re-development alternative. We can also seek public opinion and make a complete recommendation to you so that a proper selection can be made in the best interest of our students and our tax payers.
By simply re-affirming your commitment for planning Havre de Grace High School we can move forward in a timely manner without making a rushed decision or losing the ability for State funding consideration.”
Also at the December 3rd meeting, the school board asked Superintendent Tomback to evaluate more options, including an alternate location for the replacement school and a combined new middle and high school facility. Board Vice-President Nancy Reynolds, a former HCPS middle school principal, made the motion, which was unanimously approved by her fellow board members. Reynolds said that the concept of Patterson Mill Middle/High School had been very successful. She also noted the relatively low middle and high school enrollments in Havre de Grace.
Havre de Grace Middle School was opened in 1967 and has had no major renovations since that time, according to the school system Web-site. Current enrollment is approximately 530 students, according to the latest published figures.
County Executive Craig said after the meeting that there was no land available as an alternate location for the replacement high school building and he did not support the middle school/high school combination from an educational standpoint. Craig is a former middle school vice- principal.
In response to a question, Craig said he did not plan to forward fund the replacement school.
The following day at a press conference, Craig said he thought that the school board would support the replacement option.
Below is the full text of a December 3rd letter from County Executive Craig to the members of the Harford County Board of Education: