Harford Schools Open -- for Some

August 30, 1993

Harford County schools open before Labor Day this year, for the first time in history. But not for 800 students of Fallston Middle School whose new building is unfinished, with fire safety defects.

Last year, authorities put them in the adjacent Fallston High School. This year, the students will start school two weeks late. The delay could be longer, if the state fire marshal doesn't approve. The health department also noted unfixed problems. Contractor Triangle Construction Co. was to have finished the $14 million job July 15.

The fiasco is a rebuke to the insistence of Superintendent Ray R. Keech that Harford schools start a week earlier than usual. And to his position that students need more days in school: the state will be asked to exempt the Fallston Middle pupils from the mandatory 180-day minimum school year.

The school board was not responsible for contractor delays, but it knew early on that the builder was not meeting the schedule. The gym, kitchen, parking lot and other facilities won't be ready by Sept. 1 in any case. Yet the administration at Gordon Street kept mum, declaring everything was fine, even a day after the fire marshal refused to certify the building for use.

Bad weather, a contract challenge by the disqualified low bidder, and a badly managed disagreement over a tiny patch of wetlands in the parking lot all played roles in the delay. So did the contractor's refusal to subcontract masonry work; his slow in-house work was a major factor.

This isn't the only example of poor new school planning. Church Creek Elementary in Riverside was to open this fall, but serious construction delays and hazardous-waste cleanup forced the system to postpone its use until next August.

Harford's school population, now at 35,000 children, has been growing for 10 years and new buildings are needed. But construction delays are becoming too common. Postponed opening dates for schools are a serious matter.

The situation calls for greater vigilance of school authorities in setting realistic construction timetables, careful oversight of work in progress, and tougher enforcement of contracts. The $1,500-a-day penalty for exceeding deadlines is ineffective; builders always find excuses to get off the hook.

Contractors who are not reliable should be disqualified from future bids; they know how bad weather must be factored into bids. But school authorities must also ride closer herd on projects, and take foresighted action to remedy delays.

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