Unlocking the mysteries -- of school construction


May 02, 1999|By MIKE BURNS

TRYING TO FIND out what's really happened with Carroll County's school construction program is like trying to build the Great Wall of China one brick at a time.

It's a seemingly endless task, wrapped in imperial infallibility -- with a giant stone wall at the end.

The recent problems, failures, gaffes and obduracy of the school board and its administration in building and expanding schools have been well-publicized.

Less familiar is the incredible series of delays and evasions used by the school system to avoid accepting responsibility and accounting to the public.

For nearly a month, the county commissioners have been awaiting a full discussion of what happened at Cranberry Station Elementary School, which will probably be completed this summer, $2 million over budget and $3.5 million more than the administration's estimate two years ago.

An informal accord with the commissioners to conduct an outside audit of the troubled project was delayed by the school board. Indignant board members reminded the commissioners that they had no authority to order a performance audit of the Board of Education. No matter that the county government and taxpayers provide the bulk of the school budget -- and that the current education budget request is nearly $3 million more than the commissioners are proposing.

School officials have made a game of delaying explanations to the commissioners for school construction cost overruns, construction delays, lawsuits, inaccurate plans and illegal behavior, such as constructing a sewage treatment plant without a permit.

Despite an effort by board member Susan Krebs to authorize an immediate outside audit on Cranberry Station, the rest of the school board voted to defer an audit until late this year. There's much to explain about the project, which went through two bid cycles, termination of the original contractor and months of delay in obtaining needed permits.

Elected boards responsive?

The major argument in counties thinking of switching to an elected school board as Carroll has is to make board members more accountable and responsive to the public. But that's not happening in this county these days with the repeated problems of new school construction. Instead, there's an annoying defensiveness and evasion on the board's part.

Despite taking some deserved heat for budgetary penny-pinching, the last board of commissioners made a major commitment to spend more than $100 million to build needed new schools (and expand existing ones) by 2002. They increased the Carroll piggyback income tax and dedicated it to school construction.

They authorized borrowing to finance the work. Like the 1990-1994 board of commissioners, they agreed to advance money for school construction instead of waiting for state funding (seeking state reimbursement later). The 1994-1998 commissioners agreed to the shifting priorities of the school board for new high schools, putting plans for an Eldersburg school above a planned Westminster school that had already received preliminary state approval.

Taking responsibility

If there was one fault of the past commissioners, it was in trusting completely the proposals of the school board and administration. There's a need for more careful scrutiny and questioning.

Fortunately, the new commissioners seem more willing to accept that responsibility.

The county is taking over the sewage treatment project at Francis Scott Key High, actively exploring solutions to the problem of where to legally discharge the treated wastewater. The school system built the treatment plant without state permit and then could find no approved discharge site. It is hauling waste from the school to a municipal treatment plant at a cost of more than $100,000 a year. Meanwhile, the school board faces possible state fines for environmental violations.

The commissioners are also taking the initiative in seeking practical solutions to the question of building two new high schools (in Eldersburg and Westminster) rather than merely listening to school board wishes.

They're concerned that plans for two 1,200-pupil schools, proposed by the school system, will be inadequate over the next decade. They proposed raising the Eldersburg high school capacity to 1,600 pupils. (Last week, commissioners said the Westminster high site chosen six years ago by the school board is unsafe because of heavy traffic on adjacent roads.)

The commissioners recognize that larger capacity could endanger state approval of the Westminster project and delay the Eldersburg school's completion by a year. So they've discussed building larger "core" facilities (cafeteria, library, auditorium) for 1,600 children at Eldersburg, allowing for future expansion, while keeping the classroom size of both projects at 1,200 pupils.

That's a good idea, even if it may not be finally adopted. More important, it shows independent thinking by the commissioners, rather than simply relying on sending an ex-officio member to the school board meetings.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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