School project funding is OK'd

Commissioners, board agree on Gateway plans

opening set next year

Cost dispute caused delay

Construction to begin in two weeks at site near Moton Elementary

April 19, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

After more than a year of delays, plans for a Gateway alternative school cleared all remaining hurdles yesterday as the school board and county commissioners agreed to a construction contingency fund, signed final paperwork, finalized the deed transfer and made plans to issue the first construction permit Tuesday.

The boards quickly reached agreement on unresolved issues - and they did so without the fireworks expected from returning to a topic that last resulted in talk of mistrust and accusations of insufficiently documented construction spending.

If all goes as planned, work could begin at the 9 1/2 -acre site behind Robert Moton Elementary outside Westminster in two weeks, project manager Ellen Becker said.

That would put the new school a month behind schedule but keep it on track to open in August next year.

The two boards also discussed the school system's $212.1 million budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The spending plan is millions of dollars more than county officials have said taxpayers can afford, making many of the new staff, new programs and employee raises approved in February by the school board unlikely.

"It's not a question of whether any of these things are worthy because I think we all agree that what you're asking for would be great," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said, looking over the school board's list of $9 million in budget additions. "But the dollars just aren't there. Not this year."

News of the Gateway School's approval brought great relief to Principal Bob Cullison, who was not at the boards' afternoon meeting and who learned of its resolution by phone from Becker.

"I have been waiting for this for a long time," Cullison said in a phone interview yesterday evening.

"I'm just delighted because just to get some finality, just to find out we're definitely going to get the project started, is a big boost."

The new building would move the alternative program - for middle and high school students who need special education programs or other alternative schooling because of behavioral and emotional problems in traditional classroom settings - from leased space in Westminster Air Business Center near the airport to a permanent and warmer building.

"Right now, being in the industrial park certainly serves its purpose, but it doesn't feel schoollike," Cullison said.

"It feels businesslike from the outside without any green spaces around the building. Plus, [building a new school] clearly shows the population of alternative students that we're working with them and that they're important, too, that they're not just a forgotten group."

The school has been a point of contention between the two boards from nearly the earliest planning stages.

Carroll's plans for the Gateway School received state planning approval in May 2000 and the county commissioners agreed three months later to provide $2.5 million toward the $4.9 million project.

But after receiving state construction money last spring, plans for the school were put on hold as school and county officials continued to wrangle over the cost.

The project was stopped altogether last summer after bids came in $1.3 million over budget and school board members questioned whether the project would have to be so scaled back to meet its budget that it would be worthless.

The $4.4 million project approved yesterday reflects Becker's final cost reductions, including eliminating a colorful wave pattern from the roof, removing a window shading device and substituting metal siding with a less expensive wooden plank siding.

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