A few days after the Harford County Board of Education presented its reasons for halting plans to build Red Pump Elementary School and moving forward with Campus Hills to ease school overcrowding; the Harford County Council released the results of its own investigation at a meeting with PTA leaders in the Council chambers on Thursday.
By the end of the 2 ½ hour presentation, both Council President Billy Boniface and Vice President Dick Slutzky had presented a detailed discussion of the merits of building Red Pump over Campus Hills and also aimed the spotlight squarely on County Executive David Craig as a key figure in the controversy.
Councilman Slutzky said that the Council was “investigating with auditors how the Executive Branch” is providing funds to the Board of Education to proceed with Campus Hills despite the Council’s approval of only $100,000 in actual funding for the project and the Council’s subsequent request that spending be put on hold. Slutzky said the Council has not been asked to approve the bond sale for Campus Hills and said County Government was “writing checks without a balance in the bank.”
On the question of State reimbursement for Red Pump which, along with Campus Hills, was being forward funded by the County with hopes of State reimbursement, Council President Boniface said “We did have State funding approval” for Red Pump and “the County Executive lobbied to have it taken away” but that “we can get it back. Slutzky said the Board of Education and the County Administration “have delayed this process for your kids for a year”
Regarding the battle between the School Board and the Council, Boniface said “The County Executive wants a school real bad at Schucks Road” and “He’s using us as the scape goats” and we “don’t know why [Board of Education President] Pat Hess is going along.”
But Board President Pat Hess and even Past President Tom Fidler didn’t escape speculation as to their motives, given Campus Hills’ location outside the development envelope and the political and financial winners and losers either school might produce.
Boniface said the development envelope could be expanded if the County was somehow forced to provide public water to the Campus Hill site, for example if contamination were found from MTBE similar to what had been found at nearby Harford Community College, although findings at the HCC site were not at actionable levels.
Slutzky asked the audience “Who lives in the Red Pump area and has aspirations for political office? Pat Hess told me four times he brought the idea [of Campus Hills] to Jackie Haas and shepherded it through the Board. You decide why that was done.”
Slutzky also said he told President Hess that the Council would support expanding either new school to 800 seats and that Red Pump could relieve overcrowding at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School as well as Prospect Mill, Fountain Green, Hickory and Forest Lakes Elementary Schools but the school expansion and the benefits to Youth’s Benefit Elementary School were not included in the Board’s presentation to the public last Monday night.
Former Board of Education President Tom Fidler is a Senior Vice President and a Principal at Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Services representing several properties in the area near Campus Hills that could benefit if public utilities were extended to the school site. President Boniface said Fidler had earlier asked him to extend public water to another school outside the development envelope, Forest Hills ES, and that the Council had “been under tremendous pressure” to do so. Of Fidler, Boniface said “He steps down from the Board and six months later, it’s Schucks Road [Campus Hills].”
Speaking of the entire controversy over which school should be built, Council President Boniface, who is also an owner/operator of Bonita Farms, a horse farm in Darlington said: “I’ve shoveled a lot of horse manure and I have a sense when something smells and I’ll tell you this thing stinks.”
President Boniface explained that the Council requested a report to prepare the Council for a possible vote on the funding for Campus Hills, but that no request had come to the Council yet to approve the bond sale to finance the school. Boniface said “we haven’t been asked to do anything” by the County Executive. Councilman Slutzky said that the private communications between the Council members and the leadership of HCPS were intended to avoid embarrassment for “agencies or individuals – obviously that was a mistake” but he suggested to the audience that after the Council’s presentation “you might have to decide who should be embarrassed”.
The report prepared at the Council’s request by Councilman Slutzky began with a chronology of events, beginning in November 2008 when enrollment figures reported to the Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board, which Slutzky chairs, indicated that it was likely that only one new elementary school would be needed to relieve overcrowding greater Bel Air area. The report went on to detail a series of meetings and phone conversations between Council members and Board of Education President Pat Hess and sometimes including Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Haas, Interim Superintendent Pat Skebeck, Chief of Administration Joe Licata and Assistant Superintendent for Operations Cornell Brown.
In one notable exchange from the report, Slutzky writes that Board President Hess told him in on January 13th that “he would never change his decision to halt Red Pump and build Campus Hills and that if the Council would not fund building Campus Hills then the BOE might not build any school at all,” although Hess later backed off from that position.
“Cherry Picking” PTAs
On January 23rd, the report says Hess called a parent from Prospect Mill Elementary School to solicit support in lobbying the Council for Campus Hills. In the course of their conversation Hess told the parent that since Red Pump had been halted (in December), even if the Board reversed their decision the school would no longer be ready in 2010 but would be delayed until 2012 because reopening the bid process would take too long to restart.
But later in the report, Slutzky wrote “After checking with the Health Department, I found out that all the required permits that they know of are in force and are good for one year” and after checking with a “knowledgeable School Administration source” that restarting the bid process would not be difficult, especially in the current economic environment.” And he therefore believed Hess’ statements about the bid process to be untrue “He [Pat Hess] appears to be relying on scare tactics to enhance his defense.”
Sources say that Hess, County Executive David Craig and others also met with parents at Prospect Mill Elementary School, which is the most crowded elementary school in the county and closest to the Campus Hills site, to solicit their support for Campus Hills and specifically to fight the Council. The Council report says that Hess did not contact other area PTAs, including those closer to the Red Pump site. Slutzky said later during the meeting “Pat Hess cherry picked PTAs” whereas the Council “invited everyone”
Addressing the Board of Education’s Case for Campus Hills
The Council’s report says the Board’s suggestion that Campus Hills is located closer to the overcrowding is misleading. Slutzky presented two maps at the meeting showing that that elementary overcrowding was evenly split between Campus Hills and Red Pump, when overcrowding at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School was factored in.
That contrasts with the Board’s analysis which excluded Youth’s Benefit Elementary School but included Churchville Elementary School. The Council’s report says that Churchville is outside the development envelope, operating under capacity and not expected to experience population growth. Slutzky said at the meeting that Youth’s Benefit Elementary School is the third most crowded elementary school in the county and has neighborhoods inside the development envelope that have the potential for population growth. The report says Youth’s Benefit Elementary School could get relief from Red Pump, but is too far from Campus Hills. And while Youth’s Benefit Elementary School is slated for expansion in the Board’s Capital Improvement Program, Slutzky said that given the current economic environment, proceeding with that expansion was 6 to 9 years away.
The Board has also argued that redistricting would be more complicated by the opening of Red Pump rather than Campus Hills and that transportation would be more expensive
In an excerpt from the Council’s report:
“Substantial residential neighborhoods in five out of the six attendance areas being considered in this district are within 3 miles of the site for Red Pump School. These neighborhoods could be potential sites for redistricting. Students from all those schools could be driven directly to the Red Pump Road School without having to travel any further than other students have to travel within the attendance area they are already in to go to the school they already attend. The only school attendance area outside this situation is Fountain Green. Only Prospect Mill and Fountain Green are within four miles of the Campus Hill school site.”
Slutzky said that at one of the meetings with HCPS officials, he pressed several times for hard data to show whether it would be more expensive to transport students one way or the other as the Board has claimed. Slutzky said the response he received was “No, but we suspect it could be” and that buses cannot always make right turns. But Slutzky said that given that redistricting plans are not yet in place it was impossible to know which routes would be affected and which school would be less expensive for bus transportation.
The heart of the presentation involved an Item Analysis beginning with an overview of the comparative costs of Red Pump vs. Campus Hills, with data supplied by the Harford County Treasury Department, Department of Public Works, Health Department, Department of Planning and Zoning and the Harford County Board of Education and the Harford County Public School Administration.
The report notes that the cost for the prototype school building at either site would be the same at $23 million. So the cost comparisons boiled down to estimated costs relating to site considerations such as necessary road improvements, access to water supply, sewer requirements and the locations in or outside the development envelope. Boniface said during the meeting that it was these site considerations that made Campus Hills the Council’s secondary choice when it appeared that enrollment would require two schools.
Costs for either the Red Pump or Campus Hills site have changed over time and in fact data provided by the Board of Education for the Council’s report provides conflicting figures. While the Board’s own presentation Monday estimated that Red Pump would be slightly cheaper to build than Campus Hills, Councilman Slutzky said in a phone interview that the estimates are “moving targets”, especially given that many costs are unknown and that he used the Board estimates showing Campus Hills would be slightly cheaper in his report because those Board estimates were supported with more detail.
The report says that Red Pump is expected to cost a total of $32,182,854, of which $1,986,820 had been spent as of February 2009.
The total cost for Campus Hills is estimated at $30,924,129, of which $249,749 had been spent as of February, although only $100,000 was approved by the Council. The $249,749 expenditure figure also does not include encumbrances from contracts associated with the site, which documents attached to the report indicate totaled approximately $2.7 million. The report also says the estimated total cost for Campus Hills does not include highway improvements and is complicated by costs that are being shared with other government agencies, including Parks & Rec, making it difficult to separate out costs for Campus Hills alone.
The report says the cost of the only road improvement necessary to Red Pump is a roundabout, estimated by the Department of Public Works and Treasury at $350.000.
Campus Hills would be served by the busy intersection of Rt. 22 and Schucks Road, which one Board of Education member had euphemistically called “an adventure.” The cost of a turning lane off of Rt. 22 to the school and related drainage improvements were estimated by the Department of Public Works to cost between $450,000 to $500,000 and long term improvements to the area are estimated to cost between $3 million to $6 million.
But the Council report noted that isolating the cost of other needed road improvements that accrue only to the new school is problematic in light of a planned expansion of HCC. According to the Council’s report the County Executive may also seek to forward fund major road improvements in the area at an estimated cost of $7 million to $8 million. From the report: “The County Administration would prefer a consolidated long term solution with additional improvements and would hope to get State grant money to help with the expense.”
At issue is whether these improvements involving State roads, which are normally funded with State dollars, should be taken on by local taxpayers. If Campus Hills moves forward, Slutzky told the audience “The County would use your tax dollars to fund a State road.”
Red Pump Elementary is located inside the development envelope and therefore has access to public water. According the Harford County Department of Public works, the cost of connection charges for both water and sewer would be $364,550; the cost for water only was not separated out. Added to that would be the cost for purchasing water depending on the price and the usage at the time the school opens.
Campus Hills Elementary would require the construction of a major new well, the cost of which could not be estimated by either the Health Department or the Department of Public Works. Also unknown were potential recurring costs if a carbon filtration system was needed. The report says MTBE had been found on the Harford Community College campus, across the street from the proposed elementary school property. While the Board of Education had made much of water testing on the school site that came up clean, Councilman Slutzky said the Board’s engineers did not test adjacent sites and the report notes that the site of a former gas station at the corner of Rt.22 and Schucks Road had not been tested since monitoring wells were pulled up in 2006-07.
Septic systems will have to be built at both school sites.
Red Pump Elementary has access to public sewer service, but both a temporary and a permanent pumping station would first be required. The cost of the temporary station could not be estimated by the Department of Public Works, although the cost of the permanent station was estimated at $4 million to be shared with the county and a local residential developer. The County’s share was estimated at $2.7 million which would be recovered through connection fees and service charges.
The Campus Hills site also requires a permanent septic system of unknown cost, although the report cites a suggestion from the Health Depaprtment that the system would have to be larger and more expensive than the one at Red Pump. The possibility exists that those costs could be shared with the expansion of Harford Community College and other public schools in the area, but no formal arrangement has been proposed. The report said that such a “package” deal would raise questions about ownership which could become crucial if the system should fail. Campus Hills is being forward funded by Harford County Government, with revenue coming entirely from local taxpayers. Costs at HCC are shared. Revenue for the college in FY 2008 came from local taxpayers (37%) tuition and fees (31%) the State (22%), students and other (10%)
The report concludes with Slutzky’s recommendation that the Council give serious consideration to funding Red Pump with added capacity and that the Council work with the Board and the School Administration move the project back on track as soon as possible. Both Slutzky and Boniface said Red Pump would now be difficult to complete by 2010, but it could be done by 2011 compared with Campus Hills which Boniface said would only open in 2012 under a “best case” scenario.
Summing up the Council’s case, Boniface said what was most disturbing was that at Red Pump, all permits were approved, contracts were out and the school was ready to go into construction and open in the fall of 2010 and asked the audience “What went wrong?”