A crash course in school building

September 27, 1993

Harford County's school construction program is a mess. There's plenty of blame to go around.

Contractors can't meet deadlines, can't meet payrolls, cut corners to win the low bid and then hire unqualified subcontractors. Even when the second-lowest bidder is chosen, the project can fail.

The school system administration does not aggressively and comprehensively monitor in-progress work on a timely basis. The board's construction unit overseers can be either overworked or under-worked.

School board procedures on planning, design and award use up precious months needed for construction lead time.

The county government hangs on to planning and design dollars for new schools until the last moment, so construction time-frames are compressed without leeway for contingencies.

The state, which pays two-thirds of school construction costs, won't approve a project until the expected student enrollment is already banging at the door, with little room for growth.

Other counties share some of these problems, trying to cope with the population bulges that demand more school capacity.

But few have experienced the disastrous results seen in Harford County this year. Fallston Middle opened two weeks late, still incomplete. Church Creek Elementary's contractor went bankrupt, even after the planned opening was delayed a full year. The renovations bill for Havre de Grace Elementary doubled to $2.2 million in less than three months.

From this debacle have emerged some reasonable solutions.

School construction money could be allocated a year earlier by the county government. The state could accelerate its approval process (even if it would pay less.) The contractor should have adequate time to meet the deadline, and be stiffly penalized for non-performance.

Contractors could be pre-qualified to bid on projects, and they could be required to name their subcontractors.

Harford Community College has chosen second-lowest bidders for projects when the low bidder was found to be technically deficient. The Harford school board should exercise the same prudent judgment before the contract award.

The county Board of Education is meeting today to discuss changing the system. It's an overdue consideration.

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