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A small consolation to the taxpayers of the town of Bel Air is that the cost of building a full-sized auditorium at the new Bel Air High School came in $171,000 under budget.

In a year when the town government is scrambling to deal with income shortfalls, this comes as good news.

The reality, though, is that the town should never have had to come up with the $1.5 million (less $171,000) it ended up paying to ensure that the new school would have an auditorium big enough to accommodate more than the 540 people originally proposed by Harford County Public Schools.

Despite public concerns raised about the relatively small size of the auditorium as originally proposed, the school system wouldn’t budge, so the town commissioners in Bel Air decided to foot the bill for the difference between a 540-seat auditorium and an 800-seat auditorium. Out of similar concerns, the Harford County executive and county council committed $1 million in county funds to build a larger auditorium.

With capacity for 1,700 students, Bel Air High will still have an auditorium that’s not big enough to accommodate the full student body.

Still, the money the town and county governments put out for a school that ended up costing tens of millions of dollars, though well spent, all came from the wrong source.

The school system should have planned for a full-size auditorium in the first place, and fully funded it. Our public schools, though they’re first and foremost learning centers, are also important community gathering places. All too often the leaders of the school system forget this, and the Bel Air High auditorium fiasco is an example.

For several years, Bel Air — a community that is substantially larger than the area served by the municipal government — has been in the market for a community performance venue. The school system, whose headquarters building is within the town limits, should have recognized itself as a part of this community and footed the bill for a decent sized auditorium.

It wouldn’t have been out of place among high schools in Harford County. Havre de Grace High has an auditorium with seating for 999, even though the school’s enrollment and capacity are substantially less.

The school system’s leadership, and the state officials who set so many of the policies and parameters for building schools, both need to recognize schools are part of something bigger, namely a community. They have an obligation to serve that community.

Thankfully in this instance, the Bel Air town and Harford County governments recognized that obligation to serve a greater community and paid for something that will be well-used by people from well beyond the town limits.


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