'Left out' council irked

County Council not told of funding being held up for Red Pump Elementary School

December 14, 2008|By David Kohn | David Kohn,david.kohn@baltsun.com

On Monday, the Harford County school board voted to delay funding for one of two new elementary schools.

But no one told the Harford County Council about the planned action. And the council didn't like that. Not one bit.

"The council was left out of the process," said council member Richard C. Slutzky. "We had no knowledge that this was being considered."

"This was a bombshell to us," said council President Billy Boniface.

The decision, approved unanimously by the board, would put off construction of Red Pump Elementary School, which would have been completed by 2010. The board did not delay work on Campus Hills Elementary, which is to be ready in 2011. Both schools will cost the same amount to build, about $33 million each, and would have housed about 700 students each.

Slutzky and others on the council say they might try to block the board's decision. The council cannot rescind the delay, but it does have the power to approve or deny requests from the school board for bonds - which is how the board pays for school construction. As a result, the council can effectively stop construction of Campus Hills Elementary.

"At some point, they're going to need money to build the school," Boniface said. "That's where the council comes in." He and other council members said they would consider using this leverage to get the board to reconsider its decision.

Board members say the decision to delay construction of Red Pump was prompted by cost concerns as well as the realization that the county school system is no longer growing. When the two schools were being planned, the number of students in Harford schools was growing.

But over the past three years, the system, which teaches about 38,000 students overall, has lost about 900 students.

Boniface and several other council members emphasized that they have substantive reservations about the board's decision. They said the board should have considered delaying Campus Hills rather than Red Pump. Critics say the site for the Campus Hills school, at the intersection of Route 22 and Shucks Road northeast of Bel Air, is heavily congested. Harford Community College, a mall and a McDonald's are all near the intersection.

"There's a lot of traffic issues around that site," council member Chad Schrodes said.

Boniface agreed. "I believe very strongly that we have a serious traffic issue at the Shucks Road site," he said.

County Executive David R. Craig, who supports the board decision, said the county had agreed to improve Shucks Road when the Campus Hills school had been approved.

The site is not part of the county's water system, and would have to build its own septic system. Because the area doesn't drain well, doing so could be expensive and difficult, opponents say.

School board President Patrick Hess said Campus Hills was best placed to relieve overcrowding in the county's elementary schools. Although the system overall has lost students, almost one-third of Harford's 32 elementary schools are overcrowded, with some schools almost 50 percent over capacity.

"Campus Hills is in the epicenter of the overcrowding," Hess said. "We feel we will be able to solve 98 percent of the capacity problems with Campus Hills."

The council's annoyance extends beyond the school board to Craig. In a news conference just before the Harford County school board meeting Monday, Craig, flanked by Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and Hess, expressed strong support for the delay.

"We had no discussions with the county executive or the school board about this," Boniface said.

Craig said it was up to the school board to communicate with the council. "It was their initiative," said Craig's spokesman, Robert Thomas. "This was not an initiative of the county executive."

"It was understood that the board of education was going to brief the council on the proposal," Thomas said.

Hess took responsibility for the communications breakdown. "I'll take the blame for not communicating," he said. "I was remiss." He said Thursday that he hoped to speak to council members over the next few days.

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