For years, school officials have kicked around the idea of putting a performing arts magnet school at Havre de Grace High School.
Earlier this month, Harford County Executive David R. Craig gave that idea a boost when he endorsed it at a county school board meeting. The school board agreed to put together a community study group.
But critics say the idea is misguided, wasteful and counterproductive.
"Why do we need a performing arts magnet school when we already have so many high schools doing great work?" asked Bel Air resident Carole Valle. Valle's two daughters take part in drama programs at Patterson Mill High. Her son, Evan, who graduated in May from Bel Air High, also participated in singing and theater as a student there.
Opponents also note that three Harford high schools - Bel Air, Patterson Mill and North Harford - have new auditoriums. Craig has mentioned the large, well-appointed Havre de Grace high school as a key advantage for the proposed program.
They say the money used for the Havre de Grace magnet school would be better used helping existing performing arts programs.
But Craig said that the Havre de Grace High School's top performing arts program "would be the easiest to expand."
Craig also noted that Havre de Grace is home to an active arts commission, and a number of painters, craft workers and arts-related shops. "There is a basis of support for arts in the community," he said.
The proposed program would exist within Havre de Grace High School. Students would apply and be accepted on the basis of talent. They would attend Havre de Grace but focus on arts classes in the areas they are most interested in. The county now has two magnet schools: a science and math program at Aberdeen High School and an International Baccalaureate program at Edgewood High School.
Harford County is also planning a natural resources and agricultural magnet program, which will open in 2010 at North Harford High; a homeland security magnet school at Joppatowne High; and a biomedical magnet school at Bel Air. Harford schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said that if the performing arts school gets approval, it likely wouldn't open until 2013.
Some critics have suggested that Craig's support of the idea might be colored by his background. He was born and raised in Havre de Grace, graduated from Havre de Grace High School, and once taught history at Havre de Grace Middle School. He served two terms as the city's mayor.
"I'm not sure that's the kind of precedent we want to establish," County Council member Richard C. Slutzky said of Craig's advocacy. "It puts the school board and the administration up against the wall."
Slutzky, who worked for 31 years as a teacher and coach at Aberdeen High School, generally opposes the idea of magnet schools. "I believe we ought to be offering high-level programs at every school," he said.
Like other opponents, he also questioned whether the school board should be thinking about adding a new program during an economic crisis.
The cost of magnet programs varies widely, depending on the focus area. "It all depends on the material and resources," said Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett, who oversees magnet programs. Plunkett and Haas said that most programs have about 12 teachers, which can cost about $1 million a year in salary and benefits.
Valle and others say it doesn't make sense to put a magnet program in a school at the edge of the county. "Havre de Grace is not central," she said.
Craig disagreed. "You don't put everything in the center," he said. Critics said the same thing when the now-successful math and science magnet at Aberdeen High was being debated, he said.