SALISBURY — The Wicomico County Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to remove building a new Bennett Middle School (BMS) from the 2012 budget and instead pushed it back to 2013.
The decision was met with mixed reactions, both within the council and from the audience, a large portion of which were parents of students in the Wicomico County school system.
“This has put the county in a very difficult position,” Council President Gail Bartkovich said of the debate over keeping Bennett in the budget.
While all of the council members expressed the desire to see a new middle school in the near future, the majority was of the opinion that it would be unrealistic to move forward right now, given the county’s less than ideal economic situation.
“Until the economy comes back, I think we need to put a hold on borrowing money,” said Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman.
However, Prettyman did admit that she would not consider the Bennett High School project done until a new middle school was built as well.
Councilman Bob Caldwell was part of the minority that wanted to see BMS remain in the 2012 budget. While he shared his colleagues’ opinion that finding money for the project next year would be unlikely, he did state that there was still a chance, albeit a remote one.
“Miracles happen,” he said.
Keeping Bennett in the budget wouldn’t commit the county to moving ahead with the project but would keep it on the council’s radar in case funding became available.
“I think it would be a mistake to move it at this point,” said Caldwell. “When you stop trying, you start dying.”
Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes agreed.
“I think it may be premature to take it out now,” she said.
She argued that the council wasn’t 100 percent sure on how all of its funding would fall into place for 2012, so there was no reason to strike constructing a new BMS from the list yet.
However, the majority felt that coming up with the roughly $16 million needed for the project would almost certainly not happen in 2012. Many members of the council also took issue with the proposed cost and design of the new middle school.
“We can do better,” said Council Vice President Joe Holloway. “We can build a better school for less money.”
Holloway referred to the current design as “over the top,” comparing it to the Taj Mahal.
“I have an issue with this,” he said.
Councilman Matt Holloway reinforced the argument.
“This is not a realistic approach,” he said, referring to the proposed BMS design.
Holloway added that it was “a lot cheaper to air-condition a building and tint the windows than it is to build a new school.”
“Times are not like they usually are,” said Matt Holloway, remarking that the BMS design needed to cut some costs or he would not support it.
All of the council, except for Caldwell and Sample-Hughes, voted in favor of pushing Bennett from the 2012 budget back to the 2013.
“I’m extremely disappointed with that,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Frederickson, referring to the decision.
According to Frederickson, the Board of Education had been willing to compromise with the council on some aspects of the school design. He also stated that postponing a new BMS was unfair to the students currently in the school system.
“Education delayed is education denied,” he said.
While Frederickson didn’t agree with the direction the council was heading with Bennett, he said that the school board would cooperate and try and get the ball moving on the project as soon as possible.
“We’ll work with you,” he informed the council.