Bad planning yields a horrible decision


February 27, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

What a depressing conjunction of public policy decisions -- or, rather, indecision!

After puttering around for more than a year (as did its dilatory predecessors) the county commissioners now question whether the Westminster area truly needs a second high school after all.

That's a planned 1,600-student, $37 million school that is suddenly not needed to relieve classroom overcrowding in eastern Carroll County -- after years of county campaigning to build the school.

The reversal comes after the three commissioners signed off last year on the most expensive option for building the new high school (planned to be ready in 2002).

It comes after their field trip last year to inspect similar schools that were built for less. And after years of talking about the project, with little suggestion that the school itself would be unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the school board is pressing ahead with a massive redistricting plan that is designed to accommodate the new high school and other new schools for the next five years or so.

Without the new high school, there's going to be a lot more painful redistricting.

To be sure, much of the current questioning of the new Westminster high -- first presented to the state for priority funding in 1996 -- comes from parents unhappy with having their children redistricted and from citizens upset that the new school won't be in the Finksburg area, where they live.

Now, there is no shame in careful rethinking county school needs and finances. Projected conditions can change, new ideas and new problems can cause a change of direction. We elect officials to make decisions, and to hire competent professionals to advise them.

But we expect leadership after thoughtful decision making, not continual vacillation and delay.

There's nothing to be gained from reciting the embarrassing litany of recent construction mistakes made by the county school system.

But the Westminster high school project is a textbook example of stubbornness, deficient research and indecision on the part of responsible officials.

Some 114 acres was purchased for $2.2 million by the county in 1994 at Cranberry Station.

School officials say the acquisition was only planned to hold one school, at that time a high school. But plans soon changed. The site was targeted for Cranberry Station Elementary School. That's when the commissioners insisted that two schools be built on the site.

A thick layer of hard rock, expensive to remove, was discovered beneath the level of test borings, and the elementary school site was adjusted.

The Westminster high school was placed on the county's list for state funding in 1996. The site was tentatively set for Cranberry.

Then came the protests from fast-growing South Carroll arguing that Liberty High and South Carroll High were in even greater need of relief.

The new high school should be erected there, not in Westminster, they said.

So the powers that be pulled a switch. Although the Westminster high school already had preliminary state planning approval for funding -- Maryland pays 50 percent of basic construction costs -- the Carroll commissioners and the school board convinced the state funding agency to replace that project with a new high school for South Carroll.

The Westminster facility was to be built later, within a year or two of the South Carroll structure. The Carroll government committed to forward funding of that second school, hoping for reimbursement from the state agency years down the road.

That settled, the current board of commissioners began agonizing over whether the Cranberry site or another location would be best for the new Westminster high. But preliminary work had already started at Cranberry.

Concerned about soaring costs, the commissioners set a price ceiling of $30 million for the project. Soon after, they broke that limit in approving a $37 million project.

Now, at least two of the three commissioners question whether the school is really needed.

Does that have to do with the fact that state funding won't be available for the work, and the realization that the county may have to swallow the whole cost?

Or is it that county school enrollment in recent years has fallen below estimated projections, mitigating the need for more secondary school space?

Maybe all of this twisted tale is confusing to you. It should be. It should paint a picture of remarkably bad planning and lack of leadership on the part of the current county commissioners and the previous trio that left office in December 1998.

The school board has also been a party to this waffling and wailing. The administration has not helped the matter with its fluctuating enrollment figures.

Proceeding with the county-wide school redistricting plan affecting 4,400 students is also ill advised until the construction picture is clearer, and not based on a Westminster high that may not be built.

Building the new South Carroll high (now called Century) won't resolve the overcrowding in the near future, but it will help. Now's the time to make a decision on the Westminster school -- go or no go -- and to plan accordingly.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/05/00

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