County commissioners seeking bigger school in South Carroll

Officials threaten to pull funding if idea is rejected

April 18, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Funding for the long-awaited Century High School in South Carroll will be rejected if the school board doesn't agree to increase its capacity from 1,200 to 1,600 students, two county commissioners said Friday.

Playing hardball against the school board is necessary, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said, because she fears the costs of defending lawsuits against the Board of Education over botched projects, including Cranberry Station Elementary and Francis Scott Key High, could hamper future projects. One of those projects could be a second high school in Westminster.

"It affects our budget in a big way," Frazier said of the potential legal costs. "And the buck falls back with us, back on the commissioners. With the new Westminster-area high school, we might as well be prepared."

Frazier said she and Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge want better accountability from school officials regarding construction projects.

Carroll's taxes were raised in 1995 to pay for an ambitious school construction program in response to the county's rapid growth. Four of the first five projects are over budget, and two did not open on time.

Cranberry Station Elementary School is expected to cost about 20 percent more than its proposed $8 million budget, and the original contractor is suing the county, alleging violation of the Public Information Act.

Last week, school officials scurried back to the drawing board to investigate plans to expand Century High School after Frazier announced that she and Gouge were firm on funding an expanded school. The Eldersburg school is needed to accommodate projected growth in southeastern Carroll. Commissioner Donald I. Dell is opposed to the idea.

Kathleen Sanner, a school planner, said Friday that a feasibility report containing cost projections for a larger school is expected to be ready by the May 12 school board meeting.

Construction is expected to begin this summer, and the new school could open in 2001, easing crowding at Liberty High School.

The effort to increase the size of Century -- and the pending showdown over its funding -- left some school board members shaken.

Most immediately opposed the commissioners' plan for a larger high school, saying other projects take priority and that enrollment projections in South Carroll do not justify an expansion, said board member Susan Krebs.

"I have no comment on them holding up the funding," said board member Joe Mish. "But I know what they are up to: getting around the intention of the people of Westminster" for a second high school.

Dell said the demand by his colleagues is "a mistake."

"It will certainly hurt our credibility with the state and the citizens and the taxpayers who are expecting to follow through with school construction," he said. "I would hope they would not follow through with that threat."

School officials said a design change at Century could delay the school's opening by up to three years, further straining Liberty High, where 1,605 students -- 435 over capacity -- attend this year. The cost of increasing capacity at Century High is estimated at $9.8 million, on top of the original $28 million.

Gouge questioned that figure last week, saying, "I think their estimates are high as a way to discourage us. It won't work."

The commissioners and school board have been meeting for nearly a month to discuss Cranberry Station and Francis Scott Key, near Union Bridge, where a wastewater treatment plant was built without a state permit.

A February article in The Sun revealed that numerous overruns at Cranberry were tied to a break with the original contractor, James W. Ancel Inc. of Towson. That rift stemmed from a disagreement between school officials and Ancel, after officials demanded an apology from Ancel in a dispute over rock removal.

The demand soured the relationship and prompted Ancel to terminate his contract, documents show. After Ancel's departure, the school system scrambled to restart the project, paying more for construction because of tight deadlines and market conditions, the documents show.

The commissioners are seeking an immediate independent audit of the Cranberry construction expenses.

Frazier said the move to possibly hold up funding for Century High would be an exercise of the commissioner's fiscal influence that would force the school board to come up with answers.

"It would show that we have a little influence," Frazier said. "It would cause havoc, but maybe that would bring them to terms to work together with us and be reasonable."

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