Better Management, not Miracles

May 24, 1994

More bad news about school construction in Harford County: The prime contractor building two schools set to open this fall ran short of cash and its bonding company has taken over financial management of the work.

One school, Church Creek Elementary in growing Riverside, is already a year delayed, after resolving concerns about a possible toxic waste dump on that site and then changing contractors in midstream because of poor performance.

The school administration insisted last month that the second school, Emmorton Elementary in another burgeoning community, Abingdon, would open on time -- missing only library, gym, cafeteria, kitchen and so forth. And that barely credible statement came before the latest setback.

Both these schools may technically open Sept. 7, as bare-bones structures. But a skeptical public will remember that Harford school officials swore last August that Fallston Middle School would open on time. The same day, the state fire marshal barred its use for multiple safety violations; 900 students there missed more than two weeks of classes that will not be made up.

The builder of the two elementary schools, H.A. Harris Co. of Baltimore, has had problems before. It was penalized for late work on Bel Air's Ring Factory Elementary four years ago, where a faulty roof continues to leak. Harris was disqualified from the Fallston school bidding selection for fibbing about its minority subcontractor hiring claims.

The message should be abundantly clear to the Harford Board of Education that fundamental change is needed in overseeing the effective expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, not just minor tinkering with the evaluation process and stretching out timetables.

The system needs to install a professional, experienced school construction manager, not educators, to closely monitor building projects. Qualified on-site consultants or project managers should be employed by the board to make certain that builders meet staged deadlines.

The disclaimer of board spokesman Donald R. Morrison that its project managers can't "crack the whip and make things happen" is a shameless bureaucratic alibi to parents and taxpayers. "It takes a miracle to open a school on time" in Harford County, he added. Fact is, two new Harford schools have opened on time in the last three years. The school construction program's real need is for qualified builders and managers, not miracle workers.

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