Balto. County school is back on track

Feared overrun halted plans for 6 months

March 26, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Fearful that anticipated construction costs for New Town High School had ballooned to $14 million over budget, Baltimore County officials quietly halted the project six months ago.

The architect was told to stop design work. The construction manager was instructed to move on to other jobs. And then, in an effort to shave millions off the cost of the school, county officials took an unusual step: They approached Howard County officials and offered to pay $600,000 for the designs of a high school being built there.

After months of talks, Howard officials declined the offer, leaving Baltimore County with the same preliminary drawings that had set off alarm bells in September.

One school official says the county intervened too quickly on the basis of numbers that were only rough estimates. The county says it was just trying to ensure the project was brought in at budget. Whatever the case, the project is back in the hands of the school system, and Superintendent Joe A. Hairston says New Town will open on time and within its $36 million budget.

"We're still within our time frame," said schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

But the developments of the past few months have left two of the project's key players scratching their heads.

Grimm and Parker Architects of Calverton and the construction manager, Towson-based Oak Contracting Corp., say they have never witnessed events like those surrounding the planning of New Town High School.

The project is facing tight deadlines. Concrete footings must be poured before winter if the school is to open in September 2003. Before the cement mixers arrive, design work must be completed, permits granted, grading completed and utilities installed at the site on New Town Boulevard.

School officials admit the pressure is on. This is the first high school to be built in the county since work was completed on Owings Mills High in 1978. The New Town community, a booming area of tract homes in Owings Mills, has been clamoring for a high school for more than a decade.

"There is tremendous overcrowding in schools in the area," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat. "This is important. There's really no excuse for putting this project on hold for any amount of time."

School officials, including Hairston and Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns, did not want to delay the high-profile project. They worked with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and budget and finance director Fred J. Homan in hopes of obtaining a less expensive high school design from Howard County, records show.

Asked about the projected $14 million overrun, Donald F. Krempel, who has been associate superintendent for the division of physical facilities for about two years, said, "I don't know where that came from. ... There is a process involved in any new construction of a school, in which ... determine what, if you could have everything you could get, you would have. And then you work back toward your budget."

Krempel said that if someone from the county got the impression that the school system was going to use those early designs and budget numbers to build New Town, they were "absolutely incorrect."

Records show that Richard Cassell, capital program administrator for the school system, asked the county for help with the New Town project at the end of September. George Klunk, a property manager with the county Office of Budget and Finance, was invited to sit in on a design meeting.

At that time, there was talk of building a high school that would be as large as 237,000 square feet, about 30,000 square feet larger than originally budgeted, Klunk said. The cost per square foot ranged from $140 to $180.

It was Klunk and Homan's understanding that the school system was going to build a larger school at an inflated price. Enter Howard County.

Baltimore County officials were aware that Reservoir High School has been under construction in Howard County at a cost of about $114 per square foot and they were eager for details.

But Baltimore County officials couldn't persuade Howard County to share the school design. "We were absolutely hopeful," Homan said. "We offered them $600,000 for the design."

Howard County never intended to throw obstacles in the way of the New Town project, said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent of finance and operations for the school system. "We encourage regional cooperation."

Howard County officials worried that reuse of the plans by Baltimore County could expose them to a lawsuit, said Cousin, and that was enough to quash the deal.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.