County’s Tight Finances Delay School Projects

SNOW HILL – Under current economic conditions, Worcester County’s planned school renovation projects must wait at least five years before work begins, according to the County Commissioners this week.

Work on the additions and renovations planned for Snow Hill High School, Showell Elementary School, and Stephen Decatur Middle School was officially pushed back in the mandatory capital improvement plans (CIP) required every year by the state of Maryland.

The county and school CIPs cover the next ten years of planned capital projects. Inclusion in the plan does not guarantee construction of a project, however.

“We don’t have the money we used to have in prior years from taxes. There isn’t one person up here who would raise taxes that I know of,” said Commissioner Louise Gulyas during Tuesday’s discussion.

“It’s not pretty and it’s not getting any prettier,” said Commissioner Bud Church of the economy. “It’s not what we want to do. I think it’s something we’re going to have to do.”

Better to list a date on the CIP when the project can actually be started, hoping to be pleasantly surprised with the ability to proceed earlier, said Commission President Virgil Shockley, than to not be able to proceed on the earlier schedule.

“It’s a plan. Nothing is written in stone. When good times come, we’ll share with everybody,” said Gulyas.

The capital improvement plan is based on what Worcester County thinks it can afford in the future, Commissioner Judy Boggs said. The county cannot put itself into a financial hole, she said.

“It can be adjusted as we move down the road. If the economy dramatically improves, we can make some adjustments,” Boggs said.

The commissioners also required the Worcester County Board of Education to reduce the estimated costs for the school projects to match the county’s estimated costs.

The Board of Education’s estimates include a 5-percent increase for inflation, Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes told the commissioners.

“One or the other has to be changed. They should be both on the same page,” said county administrator Gerry Mason.

Gulyas said the school board should mirror the county’s plan. “What we’re asking here today is that you make your capital plan match ours,” said Gulyas.

“We have two plans and they both have to say the same thing, that’s the problem,” said Shockley.

The 5-percent increase for inflation reflects historical increases in school construction costs, said Andes. The rate of inflation could be less, or even more.       

“The other thing I cannot tell you is what the state contribution will be exactly,” Andes said.

The updates and addition to Snow Hill High School, according to the CIP, will be pushed back to 2013 for funding. The county estimates the work at $45.8 million.

Showell Elementary School is now slated for planning approval in 2014 and funding in 2015. Plans call for a larger building that can also accommodate the fourth grade, moved from Berlin Intermediate School. That will free up an entire wing at BIS and allow the fifth grade to be brought into the building from portable classrooms.

The addition to Stephen Decatur Middle School will go up for planning approval in 2015 and funding in 2016.

While the next three projects must wait, the renovations and addition to Pocomoke High School continue.

Board of Education President Garry Mumford brought good news on that project to the County Commissioners Tuesday, announcing that the state has approved the remainder of its contribution to the project, $403,000. That brings the total state contribution of the $42.8 million project to $7.2 million.

“We do not have to go to the Board of Public Works in January to beg or money,” said Andes. “We don’t have to go to the beg-a-thon.”

Andes reminded the commissioners that the state of Maryland has its own timeframe for school construction and its own way of reckoning associated costs.

“The state only opens the door for school construction one time a year. That’s Oct. 1,” Andes said.

In order to proceed with a project in a particular year, all the preliminary work must be completed so that the project is ready for approval. If a school system is not ready when the state is, the work must wait another 12 months.

“We recognize that these are tough economic times. We understand we have to work together and we will work together,” Andes said.

Gulyas assured Andes the projects will come to fruition but that the timeline must be realistically pushed back.

“You will get your schools,” Gulyas said.