After balking at the prospect of canceling a six-classroom addition at Spring Garden Elementary and returning a half-million dollars in state school construction funding, Carroll County's commissioners appeared less likely yesterday morning to insist upon a project that Hampstead's mayor and PTA oppose.
Commissioner Donald I. Dell told school board members attending the meeting that Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin had no legal authority to put a stop to construction of the addition and that the school system should proceed as planned.
"It's not a matter of spite," Dell said at yesterday morning's meeting between the commissioners and the school board. "It's a situation of what's good for education and what's good for students."
The mayor told the Carroll County Board of Education last month that he would not sign off on the $1.25 million project, effectively stalling school officials' intentions to add six classrooms without expanding the school's cafeteria, library and other infrastructure. Scheduled for completion in next spring, the addition for 150 students was bumped down the school system's calendar for construction projects until 2004 to give school staff time to re-evaluate the project and estimate the cost of a more extensive expansion.
Although town officials approved plans for the addition a year ago, Nevin froze the project last month as school officials sought to begin construction. A majority of Town Council members and a majority of parents surveyed by the PTA shared the mayor's concerns that an addition would replace the overcrowded school's eight portable classrooms without alleviating the strain on the building's common areas.
"If an addition does go there, it will be against the wishes of the majority of the parents," said Richard Tait, a Hampstead resident whose wife is vice president of Spring Garden PTA. He likened the situation to that of a family with 10 children and a four-bedroom house with one bathroom.
"To solve the problem, you don't make the bedrooms larger," Tait said. "You get more bathrooms."
When Dell said he still worried about returning state funding that has been allocated for the addition, Nevin interrupted him. "This is about more than money," he told Dell. "This is about what's good long-term for those kids."
But county budget director Steven D. Powell reminded the commissioners that even without a more expensive Spring Garden expansion - one that adds common areas and classrooms - school officials have requested more construction money over the next six years than the county has available. The lowest bids for the Spring Garden project in its current form came in $300,000 over budget, and school officials have no estimate for a larger project.
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said she has mixed feelings about the addition. "I don't want unhappy people, but I also hate to turn down money" from the state, she said. "I don't want to do anything that's going to harm us with the state - that's our main concern."
County officials are in a precarious situation with the state, trying not to offend while they wait for the release of a permit to build a well to ease perennial water shortages in South Carroll. Although Gouge said the commissioners' hesitation to cancel the Spring Garden addition is unrelated to their desire to nudge the permit approval process along, she did say that she did not want to appear "unappreciative of dollars given to us for school projects."
Dell said he wanted to tour the school before making up his mind on the project cancellation. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier did not attend the meeting.
School board President C. Scott Stone asked the commissioners to reconsider their objections and sign off on the cancellation letter that must be sent to the state.
"I'm not interested in imposing this or even participating in anything that appears to be imposing this on the community," he said. "It certainly is somewhat of an embarrassment to the school board and to the county and to the town in the eyes of the state ... but I think it would be most prudent to take a year to re-evaluate this."