Red Pump Elementary School has yet to open its doors, but the new school already has a checkered history in Harford County.
Still under construction and scheduled to open in August, Red Pump has been ground zero for a countywide elementary school redistricting that is still in the draft stages. But even before a shovel hit the ground, the school was the subject of a bitter debate between the Harford County Board of Education and the Harford County Council.
At issue was whether Red Pump would be built to relieve overcrowding in the greater Bel Air area, or whether plans for another new school planned on Schucks Road would get the nod instead.
In the end, Red Pump won out when the council voted to continue funding that shovel-ready project, rather than grant the school board’s request to switch to Schucks Road. Harford County Council Vice President Richard Slutzky conducted the February 2009 investigation leading to the council’s decision favoring Red Pump.
With elementary school redistricting putting Red Pump front and center again, The Dagger posed a series of questions about redistricting and residential development to Slutzky, who also chairs the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board. What follows is a Q & A that also includes an update on Slutzky’s old investigation, some comments concerning Youth’s Benefit Elementary, and the councilman’s pointed response to criticism from the local newspaper:
Dagger: The school board is in the process of countywide elementary school redistricting, with a goal of bringing enrollment at all elementary schools to under 100% of capacity. If that goal is reached, what will happen to the moratoriums on preliminary plan approvals for housing subdivisions in the overcrowded school districts?
Slutzky: There would be no moratoriums, because there wouldn’t be any schools over 110% of capacity, which initiates development moratoria.
Dagger: One of the reasons that redistricting is necessary is to fill the new school Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air. What would have been the effect on the moratoriums if the school on Schucks Road, also known as Campus Hills, had been the choice instead?
Slutzky: It’s all predicated on how redistricting is done, but building a school at either site had the potential to eliminate the moratoria throughout the county. It wouldn’t make any difference if students were moved from east to west, or west to east, the potential was there to reduce overcrowding and bring affected attendance areas out of development moratoria. The BOE has the redistricting authority and BOE President Mark Wolkow stated in his letter to County Executive David Craig that the BOE intended to resolve the overcrowding of all elementary schools by moving students to the new Red Pump and redistricting to existing schools nearby that had open seats. Accomplishing this would bring all elementary attendance areas out of moratoria. I can tell you that development moratoria, going one way or the other, were not a concern of interest for me in the Red Pump vs. Campus Hills school debate, and I don’t believe they were of any serious concern for my colleagues on the council at that time.
Dagger: Regarding development, your report to the council said that building a school at Campus Hills instead of Red Pump would have had the potential to expand the development envelope. How?
Slutzky: Red Pump is in the Master Plan as the designated growth area in the county. It is in the development envelope, and the Master Water and Sewer Plan, and in the state-identified priority funding area for Smart Growth and not far from areas designated for transfer of development rights. None of that is true for Campus Hills.
Consider the potential [well] water problems at Campus Hills, tested only on the site and not at an abandoned gas station at the corner, or other nearby well sources. The Health Department had reports of levels of MTBE and other volatile gas chemicals that appeared within a ½ mile distance of the school site, at the concession stand for the Harford Community College athletic fields. Those results were below the state action level but that’s very similar to the problem at Forest Hill Elementary School where pressure was put on by [former School Board President] Tom Fidler to bring public water outside the development envelope to Forest Hill.
As a council, we could only imagine the pressure to bring public water to Campus Hills. It would be hard for me to tell parents that there was well contamination near the site, but don’t worry, it’s not at the level we consider poisonous yet. No one had an updated test at the gas station – the monitoring wells had been pulled out by the time the school testing occurred.
Dagger: What would be the implications for development if public water and sewer had to be extended to Campus Hills?
Slutzky: The council was hearing that Towson University was coming to Harford Community College. The community college needed to improve water and sewer resources, and The Arena Club and Bull on the Beach were concerned about water and sewer capacity. Building an elementary school at Campus Hills would have added to that pressure to put public water and sewer outside the development envelope. Wherever those water pipes go across property, there is the opportunity for property owners to negotiate to connect to the public water source in exchange for rights of way. That immensely increases the potential value of that land for a variety of commercial, business, and residential uses. The council believed the pressure would be to expand the development envelope.
Dagger: Why did you sponsor an amendment to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance in October 2009, lifting the moratoriums in overcrowded school districts that are adjacent to a planned new school?
Slutzky: Adjacency is one of the five criteria in the APF law required to remove a residential development moratorium, which has been implemented when a public school is over the APF capacity limit. When new school capacity is being constructed, and redistricting students will be necessary to reduce overcrowding and all four of the other criteria have been met, the adjacency provision will be considered.
The provision says that if the Board of Education doesn’t provide the Planning and Zoning Department of Harford County with a final redistricting plan before the next APF capacity testing date, then all school attendance areas adjacent to the new capacity project will come out of any existing residential development moratoria. The provision is applied to elementary, middle school, and high school capacity independently.
The reason this provision was added to the APF law is that the School Administration and BOE procedures for redistricting did not match the requirement of the APF law that all new capacity is to be counted two years from the scheduled completion of the capacity project. The BOE procedure is to announce final redistricting plans on or before the first of March for capacity opening in August, or approximately six months before the scheduled opening of new school capacity. Planning and Zoning would not be able to determine where to lift or retain moratoria if they don’t have proof of which schools will be reduced below the APF limit by redistricting. Without that information the adjacency provision takes effect.
It is important to properly plan residential development where the county government believes it is best to place the development. Areas that are under moratoria may be the areas planned for development, and when they are not available it can force residential development into areas that are not preferred.
Dagger: At the request of Harford County Council, you conducted an investigation into Red Pump vs. Campus Hills, concluding with a February 2009 report in favor of Red Pump. You have since written that substantial additional information supporting Red Pump has become available. What is that new information?
Slutzky: After my report was released I became aware of a very controversial bid process for Red Pump. There was sufficient reason to believe the Red Pump project could have been aborted and switched to the Campus Hills project to avoid legal challenges. Canceling the Red Pump project would eliminate legal harm whether the challenges were justified or not.
After the report was written, I also found out the actual budget for Campus Hills was considerably more than the original estimate. In 2008, right after the BOE decided to change from Red Pump to Campus Hills, the Campus Hills project was estimated at a cost of $30,924,129 and the actual budget request for Red Pump was $32,181,854. So it did look like Red Pump was going to be more expensive than Campus Hills.
My concern, presented in the report, was that the Campus Hills project was going to be combined with funds from Parks and Recreation and the highways division of Public Works to build a roundabout, turning lanes, stripping and other improvements to Schucks Road and Thomas Run Road. There was going to be a shared entrance with P&R and Campus Hills, and other potential shared projects such as playing fields, and there was even some early discussion of a multi-use septic system. The bottom line was that the costs for Campus Hills were included in at least three budgets, BOE, P&R, and Public Works. No one at the time could come up with just how much those dollars would be. It was obvious to me that the cost for Campus Hills had to be considerably more then what the BOE estimates had been.
When the final budget was received in April my expectations were confirmed. The requested BOE budget for Campus Hills was $4,229,307 higher than the original estimates. The actual capital request for Campus Hills was $35,153,436. This cost was higher by at least a couple million dollars than both the original capital request for Red Pump and the actual cost to build that school and some added infrastructure in the area.
Dagger: What is the total cost of Red Pump, including added infrastructure?
Slutzky: $32,833,219, including 600,000 to enlarge the gymnasium, which we do for Parks and Rec activities, and $400,000 for the roundabout to improve the traffic flow and get the buses in and out of the school. There is construction on Vale Road, but it’s separate from the Red Pump site, it leads into the area.
Dagger: Why didn’t you include the cost of Vale Road construction in your figures?
Slutzky: According to Public Works, the improvements to Vale Road had been planned with or without the Red Pump School.
Dagger: What about the cost of the pumping station?
Slutzky: The pumping station has nothing to do with the school. It will replace three old and inadequate stations and any new development on the [nearby] Blake property, as well as serve the new school. [The developer Mike]Euler will pay for any new capacity and the county will pay for old capacity.
Dagger: What other new information do you have since your report?
Slutzky:The development moratoria issue was not covered in my report. Red Pump has been called ‘developer friendly’ by a local paper when actually all the information I had at that time and now from Planning and Zoning and the Council Law department concluded that depending on redistricting, either school site would have the ability to lift development moratoria in the greater Bel Air area. Youth’s Benefit could receive relief by having students attend the new Red Pump ES and/or being redistricted to schools to the north, and Emmorton could be relieved by redistricting.
For whatever reasons, in the school administration’s original plans, they did not include Youth’s Benefit in their calculations, but they did include Churchville. I was troubled by that decision because Churchville was not overcrowded and has no students that live in the development envelope, and Youth’s Benefit was the third most overcrowded school, and portions of the Youth’s Benefit attendance area are in the development envelope.
Since Youth’s Benefit was overcrowded, I understood that the school board intended to rebuild Youth’s Benefit at a future date with additional capacity when it was already one of the largest elementary schools in the county. So I was concerned that these kids wouldn’t get any relief until the county could rebuild Youth’s benefit and at the time, with the economic downturn, it didn’t look like we would have the money in the near future. So by examining neighborhood concentrations for the attendance area of Youth’s Benefit, it was clear to me that substantial population of Youths’ Benefit were as close or closer to Red Pump than the school they were attending. The school board kept Youth’s Benefit out of the redistricting – why didn’t they originally put that school in the mix?
Dagger: The local newspaper has written a number of editorials criticizing the decision to build Red Pump over Campus Hills, saying that council members deferred to your judgment when they voted to continue funding Red Pump. Do you have a response?
Slutzky: I was directed by the Council during an open legislative session to investigate and prepare a report for the Council on the options and conditions for building an elementary school at either the Red Pump or Campus Hills sites. I did my job and truly believe the Council’s decision to build at Red Pump was the best decision for the county.
The fantastic claims made in the local press about my influence on the Council associated with the elementary school controversy or any other topic is ridiculous. Suggesting that any one council member can influence other members to vote to support something they don’t believe in or aren’t comfortable with is ludicrous. The Council members I have had the pleasure to work with are thoughtful, detail oriented, and independent minded individuals who do their very best to understand issues and will not support something they are not comfortable with.
The Aegis editorial board has created its own mythology, characterized by opinions rife with hyperbole, fantastic claims, and a bogus morality. Thankfully, Harford’s informed citizens recognize this for what it is. The end result is the Aegis editorial irrelevance.