Frazier's three dour predictions


November 28, 1999|By MIKE BURNS

I HAVE one prediction: All of Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier's three pessimistic predictions about the new Westminster high school location will come true.

The Cranberry site, selected through the combined wisdom of the county commissioners and the school board members, will likely not be as safe as the alternative O'Farrell property.

It most certainly will cost a lot more to build, assuming that fundamental facilities are not eliminated.

And given the dismal history of the county school system's construction management program, there's a pretty good chance that it won't meet the projected deadline of July 2002.

The main attraction of the Cranberry site for the public has been assurances that the new high school would open on time by the fall of 2002. Switching to another site would require another year's delay, to the dismay of parents and pupils stuffed into crowded high schools.

Absent the possible earlier completion date, however, there seems little to recommend the Cranberry site -- except that school system officials started construction there without the approval of the county commissioners, who must fund the project.

With a $28 million pricetag a year ago, the new school is now projected to cost more than $38 million. Extensive, unforeseen hard rock removal is needed.

Sound familiar?

Does that sound familiar?

Critics also claim that the Cranberry site has potential traffic safety problems that are not present at the O'Farrell site. Most people would consider a road running through the middle of the campus to be a safety hazard; a majority of the school board and the county commissioners does not.

Fact is, the county government and the school board long ago joined in a commitment to building at this site.

Despite its hilly topography, and uncertain substructure, the commissioners approved purchase of the former landscape nursery with an eye toward building two schools -- an elementary and a high school -- on the 100 acres. The price was right. That was the main factor.

In short order, the school system and commissioners argued over whether one school or two had been contemplated for the property.

That contention escalated as huge deposits of rock were found under the foundation of the planned elementary school, jacking up the cost. The rock layer was found just a foot below the borings taken by the school administration.

Then came the shifting of plans, including proposals for an underground tunnel to connect the sites that are split by the highway.

Cranberry Station Elementary School, now under construction at the site, is already 20 percent over its $8 million budget. The contractor was terminated and he is suing the school system for $45 million.

The soaring cost of the high school planned for the complex adds to the financial woes.

Like King Canute

Like the ancient King Canute who futilely tried to hold back the tides by royal edict, Commissioner Donald I. Dell came up with a solution: limit the cost of the new high school to $30 million, no matter what.

That might ease the financial squeeze, but it leaves a lot of things that won't be built at the new school. Taxpayers seem to side with Mr. Dell on this one, even though the county will have to pay more to add facilities in the future.

It may turn out that the Cranberry site is the better of the two sites. Officials really didn't do a thorough job of investigating the O'Farrell land as an alternative; it might contain some hidden, costly problems that would make it no bargain.

The real disappointment in the affair is the wimping out of the three county commissioners. They could have exercised leadership and financial control by critically examining another site.

Instead, they just talked about it and acceded to the wishes of the school administration to continue the work at the Cranberry site.

The commissioners showed their displeasure earlier this year by holding back $1 million from the education budget until a systemwide performance audit of the school administration is conducted. But that is a token gesture, one that portrays the commissioners as foes of public education.

The effective stand against an errant school board would have been to insist on full investigation of alternative sites for the new high school, a major project for which the commissioners have financial responsibility.

Instead, they chose to merely grumble and then go along with the school board.

One can understand the ambivalence of Mr. Dell. After all, he's been the commissioners' ex officio member of the school board for years. His record of repeated consent to the school administration does not allow much criticism of those decisions now. Who knows where the county grand jury's ongoing inquiry into school system finances will lead?

I hope that Ms. Frazier and I are wrong, for the sake of school children and taxpayers. There just isn't much basis in recent history for a more optimistic outlook.

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

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