Lack of funds may delay Harford County's plans to modernize high school

Bids were $4 million more than officials anticipated

March 10, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford County school and administration officials are facing grim prospects for modernizing one of its high schools - from delaying the project to cutting classrooms - after construction bids came in more than $4 million over what the system anticipated.

The increases are attributed to labor costs and rising prices of construction materials, particularly steel.

The news compounds a $5 million shortfall in state funding needed this year to move ahead with construction at North Harford High School, a three-year, $44 million project.

"The whole situation is worrisome from a fiscal standpoint," said John J. O'Neill Jr., the county director of administration.

The county appears to be the only source of appeal for the board, O'Neill said, adding that even if it comes up with more money, the schools won't hear from the state until after the General Assembly session ends.

"We still can't sign the contract and get the school built," O'Neill said.

David Lever, executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, said the state has received $378 million in school construction requests for the coming year - and has $100 million so far to put toward those needs.

Of the North Harford modernization, he said, "I think there's no question this is needed. But you can see there's a real problem around the state funding worthy projects."

Last year, the state funded the first round of work at North Harford, something school officials said Monday night should not have happened unless the state was committed to follow through.

"I find it almost unconscionable to put us in this position at this time," said school board President Robert S. Magee.

School officials say options for the project could include delaying it for a year; cutting items, which might include classrooms; or shifting funds from a proposed middle-high school to North Harford.

Delaying the work for a year would push back already delayed renovations at Bel Air and Edgewood high schools, schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison said.

It could also jeopardize $1.5 million the state has given the county of its $6.5 million request for the coming year.

"We hate to pull state money, but on the other hand we've got this problem - so many projects around the state that are urgent," Lever said.

Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for the schools, told the board Monday night that the project is in a "precarious" place because bid prices are locked in for 90 days. With the funding uncertain, she said, the schools might have to rebid the project - and potentially face another increase.

The North Harford High School project aims to update the school and increase capacity to 1,600, a key part of the school system's plan to help address crowding in the north/central schools.

Officials were planning to reopen North Harford at its larger capacity in 2007, to coincide with the opening of the new middle-high school at Patterson Mill, Morrison said.

Delaying North Harford for a year would imperil that timeline - and affect redistricting plans for the C. Milton Wright High and North Harford High attendance areas, he said.

"These are two projects meant to assist with our overcrowding issues, and they need to move forward as planned," said Deb Merlock, a Harford County Council of PTAs vice president. "We're already behind in our renovation efforts."

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