SNOW HILL — Plans for a new Snow Hill High School (SHHS) will have to wait at least another year.
The Worcester County Commissioners voted 5-2 Tuesday in favor of delaying the project, citing a lack of funding, which may be addressed through an increase in taxes sometime in the future.
“We are faced with some very, very, very tough decisions,” said Commission President Bud Church.
The commission faced a tough room as well. Parents and faculty associated with SHHS filled the meeting room, all in support of getting the ball moving on renovating the school. Many of those in the room had attended a separate discussion about the school on Monday night, where Commissioner Virgil Shockley met a barrage of questions from concerned parents.
Shockley, who represents the Snow Hill district, was one of the minority on the commission to vote in favor of approving the Board of Education’s request to begin the project this year. Though he supports the renovations, Shockley didn’t deny that Worcester is in a tight spot financially.
“Things are bad, no doubt about it,” he said, adding that there are “many things that would need to fall in place” for the project to be successful.
However, Shockley pointed out that in the 13 years he’s been a commissioner, the body has approved the renovation or replacement of four schools. SHHS, he said, has been patient during that process. Shockley also noted that Worcester won’t need to go to the bond market for two years after approving the project, leaving the county time to prepare itself financially.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas, the other member of the assembly who voted to start the renovation process this year, was passionate about her position, and her comments were interrupted several times by applause from the audience.
“I am committed to having the school built now,” she said.
She agreed with Shockley’s point that giving the project a green light did not mean an immediate financial problem and that when it does finally reach the bond market, Worcester will hopefully be on better footing.
However, the majority of the council felt that it would be safer to wait until next year to begin the project so that an exact funding plan can be drafted.
“I wish we could say, ‘start laying the blocks tomorrow,’” said Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw.
But Lockfaw felt there are “too many unknown questions that can’t be answered at this point” regarding how the school will be funded.
Church also felt that Worcester doesn’t know where it will stand financially in the next few years.
“We don’t know where we’re headed,” he said.
A new assessment of property value in Ocean City could lose the county roughly $8 million, noted Church. He also mentioned that a new landfill cell may need to be constructed in the next five years, at an expected cost of $10 million, while more of the burden created by paying for teacher pensions could be delegated to the county level as well from the state.
“I want to run the county like a business,” said Church.
Without the money definitely available for the school, he added, it didn’t seem responsible to forge ahead.
“It’s easy to run out of money when you don’t have any,” Church said.
Though the majority felt that a delay was the best decision, Church acknowledged that the choice would disappoint the Board of Education, the SHHS faculty, and parents of students. He was correct.
“I’m angry,” admitted Board of Education President Bob Hulburd. “I’m not just disappointed; I’m angry.”
Hulburd, a graduate of SHHS himself, pointed out that the building has not changed much since he went there as a student three decades ago.
“Snow Hill High is virtually the same building I attended in the 1970’s,” he told the commission.
He compared SHHS to other schools around the county, many of which have been renovated drastically or replaced within the last two decades. In his opinion, SHHS is lagging far behind the rest and the faculty has been patiently waiting for the last several years, just to see work delayed further.
By postponing SHHS, he remarked, the commission is also delaying renovations to Showell Elementary School since work on that building can’t start until the high school project is complete.
“Snow Hill is caught in a whirlpool,” said Hulburd, who explained that the school board is hesitant to add minor improvements to the school like new windows or ventilation with major renovations on the horizon.
By pushing back the major project, Hulburd said the commission is also making it pointless to do small projects around SHHS, locking the school into a downward slide.
“Every year it [renovation] is put off increases exponentially the chances of having problems,” he said.
Many parents were also upset with the decision.
Stacy Mitchell, who has children both at SHHS and Snow Hill Middle School, was skeptical that work will even begin next year.
“One more year, one more year,” she said sarcastically.
Mitchell pointed out that interest and construction costs are low this year and waiting any longer might mean prices go up, which could make it even harder to afford the school next year. Plus, in Mitchell’s opinion, the condition of SHHS is an immediate problem.
“It’s unsafe,” she said.
According to Mitchell, the number of bathrooms is inadequate for the number of students that attend the school, the building leaks viciously during storms and a host of other issues make SHHS below par as it is now.
Another unhappy parent, Charlotte Butch, also felt cynical about the SHHS project moving ahead after the delay.
“They [the commission] are going to use the same excuse next year,” she said.
When asked, Church admitted that there is no guarantee that SHHS renovation will begin next year. But he did promise that the commission will try hard to make the project a reality as soon as possible.
“We want to build the school next year,” he said.
Where money for the renovations will eventually come from was not decided Tuesday. The most likely source will be a slight tax increase, an avenue that caused a collective wince from the commission.
Though a tax increase is never popular, Gulyas at least believes that, if it’s used to fund the renovation of SHHS, residents of the county will be willing to bite the bullet.
“I feel people would not be against a tax increase for education,” she said, again hearing a long round of applause.