BERLIN – At the annual Worcester County public schools opening teachers meeting this week, which usually resembles a pep rally, County Commission President Virgil Shockley reminded the school board and teachers of the investments the county government has made in the schools and Stephen Decatur High School graduate Oliver Purnell, now a Division I head basketball coach, spoke of the key role teachers play in young lives.
Shockley’s matter of fact remarks, were a direct response to a serious dispute between the County Commissioners and the county Board of Education that erupted this spring when the school board asked for supplementary funds just after the budget for the next fiscal year was struck.
While making certain to reference the five years he spent teaching junior high drafting and industrial arts, Shockley pointed out that in the last 10 years the county government has sponsored a $28 million renovation of Stephen Decatur High School, with $14 million of that coming from county coffers; a new school building for Ocean City Elementary costing $18 million, with $13.5 million invested by the county; the new Worcester Technical High School, a $43 million project, $28 million of which came from the county; and the newly begun Pocomoke High School renovation, a $43 million project with $35 million of that county provided.
That is a total of $132 million worth of school building and renovating, with 69 percent of the costs, $90.5 million, paid by Worcester County, according to Shockley.
The near future renovation of Snow Hill High School, according to Shockley, will cost about the same as Pocomoke.
“It’s coming, I promise. The commissioners promise,” Shockley said.
Shockley also reminded the school board that the county has invested $5 million in the last 10 years in technology for the schools and has increased starting teacher pay over the last eight years from $28,000 to $42,000.
“We support you. We will continue to support you,” Shockley said. “We support what you do and we thank you for what you do, for giving the children of Worcester County the greatest education they could get in the state of Maryland.”
Board of Education President Garry Mumford spoke immediately after Shockley and did not address his remarks, concentrating instead on launching the new school year.
Mumford said that it takes a village to educate children, acknowledging the Eastern Shore delegation, the County Commissioners, the school board and the teachers and staff.
“Today, this village is energized and motivated to start a new year,” Mumford said.
The Worcester County school system operates on the premise that every child can learn, he said.
Terry Springle, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, felt no reluctance to refer to the turmoil of early summer. He thanked the Worcester County Commissioners for their support and said that trust needs to develop.
“All the stakeholders must freely and openly communicate with the others,” Springle said.
This year’s keynote speaker was 1971 Stephen Decatur High School graduate Oliver Purnell, head basketball coach for the Clemson University Tigers.
“You are entrusted with building the foundation of our future,” said Purnell.
Parents and teachers are in a war with negative peer pressure that can persuade good children and teenagers to make bad decisions, Purnell said, telling the story of the death of brilliant college basketball player Len Bias, who was persuaded to try cocaine by a friend only to die from an overdose. Purnell was an assistant coach in the University of Maryland basketball program at the time.
“I’m talking about a war for the soul and character of our young people, for the hearts and minds of our young people,” Purnell said.
Bias, Purnell said, who never even drank a beer, did not want his friends to think he was different or special because of his talent. Teachers must guide and nurture students in their talents, he said, so that they honor their abilities. There is a way to counteract negative peer pressure, said Purnell.
“We call it leadership. We’re charged with building leaders and nurturing leaders and helping kids understand that what they say and do makes a difference,” Purnell said.
Schools, just like his basketball program at Clemson University, need guiding principles, he said, such as communication, eliminating negativity, responsibility and accountability.
This year, Purnell added a guiding question for his basketball organization: Will this action help us win?
He suggested that Worcester County adopt a question of its own: “Will it help you educate these kids? Will it help you build leaders, nurture leaders, and move this generation forward?”