A public hearing on capital budget priorities for Harford County Public Schools drew a standing room only crowd on Monday, with advocates calling for the Harford County Board of Education to build replacement facilities at Havre de Grace High School and Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.
Among the advocates were elected officials with the power of the purse over school funding, including Harford County Executive David Craig, who initiated the push for Havre de Grace High. What remains to be seen is whether the school board will request funding for one or both projects, or stick with their earlier decision to await the results of a planned analysis of conditions at all county school facilities. At stake is how and where taxpayer dollars will be directed for school construction next year and for years to come.
A written statement submitted by Harford County Executive David Craig kicked off the public hearing. Craig wrote that he planned to recommend funding for both the Havre de Grace and Youth’s Benefit projects in his budget for the fiscal year 2014, followed two years later by new facilities for William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School in Abingdon and Homestead/Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air, which includes a related move of the John Archer School to the campus of Bel Air Middle. Craig was not in attendance at the hearing; a spokesman read the statement on his behalf.
School funding proposed by Craig must be approved by the Harford County Council, which during the last budget cycle voted to delay the Havre de Grace High School replacement, in part because the project was unilaterally initiated by Craig and not among those prioritized earlier by the school board.
In addition to local funding, major school construction projects typically require state funding. Speaking at the public hearing, State Sen. Barry Glassman said that he would leave priority-setting to the school board, but cautioned that the economic outlook and other fiscal constraints may require major projects to be spaced out.
“I hate to be the guy to stand up here and say… we can’t have two new cars in one year,” Glassman said, adding “We can do these schools, I’m convinced, but we have to plot it out.”
Glassman went on to urge the school board to have a major project in their yearly request for state capital funding, to give the county delegation a project to work toward funding. To do otherwise, Glassman said, would put Harford County at a disadvantage when state funds are available for such projects.
Glassman’s advice was notable because the school board has thus far decided not to make any funding requests for major capital projects next year, pending the outcome of an independent analysis of county facilities. The plan to analyze county facilities was initiated by county government last year but is being coordinated by school system staff. Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations for HCPS, said after the hearing Monday that the contract to perform the analysis would be put out to bid in the fall, a delay from previous estimates. Once undertaken, Brown said that the analysis may take at least a year and half to complete. Unless the school board reverses course, such a timeline would mean that at least two budget cycles could pass before a major capital project is requested.
Harford County Councilman Joe Woods, who also spoke at the hearing, said afterward that he agreed with Glassman that the school board should have major capital requests in the pipeline for state funding.
Maroon vs. Green
A crowd of parents, community leaders and elected officials packed the 120-seat boardroom in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air Monday night, advocating in turn for either Havre de Grace High School or Youth’s Benefit, each side clad in their respective school colors of Havre de Grace maroon and Youth’s Benefit green.
For Havre de Grace High School
Havre de Grace Council President Randy Craig said that a lack of renovation over four decades and the lack of a magnet program at Havre de Grace High created an inequity with other county high schools. Havre de Grace Councilman Dave Glenn cited safety concerns, saying that the two-building school required students to cross Congress Avenue, and that the one building housing the gym and music programs was left unlocked.
Other speakers noted the age and appearance of the school buildings, with narrow, crowded hallways and stairways; a lack of technological upgrades, and uneven temperature control. Glenn said that the community had waited patiently while other county high schools were rebuilt, striking the theme that was later echoed by others: “It’s our turn.”
Also advocating for Havre de Grace High School were the president of the Havre de Grace Chamber of Commerce, student leaders, school staff, parents and community members. Havre de Grace teacher Richard Hauf said that some of the best and brightest students were lost each year to the magnet programs offered in other county schools, which also had better facilities. In a school of approximately 700 students, Huff said that the loss of 30 students each year had a negative effect on the community and on the high school, which had a history of producing successful graduates.
Student Government President Jillian Larrimore said that when Havre de Grace students see better facilities at other schools, it makes them feel less important, affecting their motivation and school pride.
For Youth’s Benefit Elementary School
Rallying under the slogan, “Build It Now”, advocates for a new facility at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston outlined problems with their two-building school, which houses approximately 1,000 students. Undrinkable water contaminated with lead; a failing septic system; buckets set in classrooms to catch water from a leaking roof, uneven temperature control, and an open classroom design that hampers instruction were among the concerns noted.
Harford County Councilman Joe Woods, who represents the Fallston district, spoke in favor of a new facility for Youth’s Benefit and offered to work with the school board to “make it happen.” Serving on the seven-member county council, Woods has a vote in approving funding for the school board’s requested budget.
Paul MacMillan, representing the group called “Build It Now”, said that Youth’s Benefit met all of the HCPS criteria for school replacement and was shovel ready for construction when it was put on hold following the economic downturn. A flyer distributed by the “Built It Now” group noted that the school was first identified by HCPS for major capital improvements in 1996.
Youth’s Benefit parent Hillary Jenkins-Spangler said that both Havre de Grace and Youth’s Benefit were worthy candidates for replacement, but said that Youth’s Benefit was older, had lead in the water and had no lunch room when the cafeteria is used for gym or music classes.
School Board President Leonard Wheeler said after the public hearing that he would look to Superintendent Robert Tomback and his staff to recommend changes to the draft capital request for fiscal 2014, which totals $31 million but includes no major school replacement projects. Wheeler said that he was open to amendments from the superintendent but would not say whether he would specifically support the addition of such projects. Budget amendments could also be proposed by individual school board members, Wheeler said.
Superintendent Tomback said during the public hearing that the draft capital budget would next be presented to board members on Sept. 10, with a final vote planned for Sept. 24.