$210 million is proposed to build Harford schools

Renovations are included in plan to be spread over several years

April 19, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Speaking in front of Bel Air High School's deteriorating facade, Harford County Executive David R. Craig outlined what he called the most aggressive school construction plan in county history, pledging more than $210 million for key projects in the coming years.

With Harford set to grow as thousands of jobs land at or around Aberdeen Proving Ground, Craig said, the county must tackle a burgeoning list of needs.

"The fact is, we have to get this done, and we have to get it done now," he said.

Craig, who was joined by schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and parents, also pushed a $14 million increase in the school budget for next year that includes a 7 percent increase in teacher salaries.

The event kicked off a series of appearances that will emphasize components of Craig's proposed $740 million budget, his first since being appointed to the county's top post last summer.

"This proposed budget will help prepare Harford County to meet the challenges we face today in our schools, as well as help prepare us for challenges yet to come," he said.

Among the projects, which are to be completed by fiscal 2010, are new Bel Air and Edgewood high schools, renovations at Joppatowne and Deerfield elementary schools, an addition to Aberdeen High, and a new elementary in the Route 543 corridor.

County Council members agree that the projects are vital, but they said they have yet to hear a concrete plan from the administration explaining how the projects will be financed. The back-loaded spending plan calls for $8.2 million in next year's budget, with the remaining $210 million spaced out over the subsequent three years.

"There's a huge amount of capital projects that are being proposed, and the funding mechanism seems to be substantially different than approaches that have been taken in the past," said Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican from Aberdeen.

Craig, a Republican, said yesterday that he believes the economy will "grow into" the expenses. But several officials, including Haas and Council President Robert S. Wagner, believe the county might need to look at additional funding streams, such as increases in the recordation and transfer tax.

"If the economy slows, things take a different twist," said Wagner, a Republican.

Under Craig's plan, the county would fund the projects and hope that the state would later chip in with its traditional 50 percent share.

That approach was used to kick-start the $59 million Patterson Mill middle and high school complex in Bel Air, expected to open this fall. But in the just-concluded legislative session, the state provided $2.1 million of the $8.4 million that the county was expecting for this year, a result that sparked local criticism of the county's legislative delegation.

Parents and school officials cheered Craig's plan yesterday, calling it the fulfillment of years of broken promises by county government.

"In the past, we've dealt with the crisis of the moment," said Cindy Mumby, president of the Bel Air PTSA. "Now a plan has been put in place to address those long-term needs. For Harford County, that's a landmark."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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