School planning proves difficult

State doesn't consider future influx of military children when doling out funds

June 25, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

As its school-age population surges to nearly 41,000, Harford County finds itself searching for land and money to build schools.

Although the state shares construction costs, it is not considering in its school funding projections for the county the military base realignment, which will soon add hundreds of students to schools along the Route 40 and Interstate 95 corridors.

"There is building in the hundreds of homes along Route 40 and hardly any increases in the state's [enrollment] projections," said Lee Merrell, school board member.

The base realignment and closure plan, or BRAC, promises a significant increase in students and has prompted county school officials to include an elementary and a middle school, as well as an expansion to Joppatowne High School into its capital budget. Joppatowne, built in 1973, has reached its capacity of 1,115 students and soon will have an addition to its gymnasium.

But school projects, whether new or expansions, do not receive state funding until students arrive in the classrooms, school officials said. The state policy often forces counties to forward fund projects and seek reimbursement as the classrooms fill up.

"We will be adding a lot of buildings in the next few years," said Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. "The pattern we have seen over the last few years is going to change."

At Haas' insistence, officials added land acquisition to its list of critical issues that the board must consider for funding.

"We have to talk property first," Haas said.

Aberdeen, which will most certainly feel the effects of the base realignment, is expected to annex 1,000 acres within the next few months. Developers envision as many as 8,000 new homes in the city of 14,000 residents. An addition that size would probably require three new schools at each level of education, officials said.

"We know where people are moving to, and we know BRAC is coming with 8,000 families," said Thomas L. Fidler Jr., a school board member. "We are not prepared for this county to grow. This county is not generating the revenues for schools, and nobody will debate it this year because it's an election year."

The state will not approve construction money until a jurisdiction has land for a school site. Although the county needs another elementary school in the northern Bel Air area, it has as yet not acquired the minimum 15 acres and cannot proceed with securing design planning approval or financing from the state.

Harford County does not bank land for future school construction, instead preferring to negotiate with developers for acreage as large projects get under way. The policy often leads to land for schools but not always the most ideal sites, said Don Morrison, schools spokesman.

"We tell the county where we need a school, and officials deal with the developer and seek the land for it," Morrison said.

In addition to land constraints, the county has "grave concerns about construction costs and even more about contractor availability," said Kathleen Sanner, schools' director of planning and construction. "We are seeing limited participation, particularly in electrical, mechanical and roofing.

"We are doing everything possible to encourage contractors to bid on our jobs, but we are competing with Cecil and Baltimore counties and Pennsylvania," Sanner said. "We could be facing no bids."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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