New Bennett Middle School Funding Viewed As Doubtful

SALISBURY — A new James M. Bennett Middle School in Salisbury remains on Wicomico’s capital improvement wish list, but county officials warned it doesn’t appear funding will be available for the project any time soon.

The Wicomico County Council on Monday reviewed the proposed fiscal year 2012 capital improvement plan, which includes, among numerous other projects, a new Bennett Middle School. A brand new James M. Bennett High School was completed last year and a new middle school is considered the next phase in the Salisbury school complex, but it appears funding for the project is not readily available.

Wicomico County has already borrowed roughly $8 million for the architectural and engineering phase for the new middle school, but the county’s share of the construction phase is expected to come in at around $36 million. The state contribution is expected to come in at around $28 million, making the total project cost over $64 million.

A review of the county’s proposed capital improvement plan on Tuesday included the county’s share of the funding for the new middle school. However, County Executive Richard Pollitt, Jr. told the council a project’s inclusion on the capital improvement “wish list” does not assure it will be funded in the future. Pollitt urged the council to approve the capital improvement plan with the school construction funding included.

“If you approve this today, we’re not committing a nickel,” he said. “We just need to keep this on the table so we can approve funding down the road if and when it becomes available.”

However, some council members said keeping the project on the list without much hope of funding it could be disingenuous.

“I don’t think it’s feasible,” said Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman. “I think every one of us would like to get this done, but I don’t see it happening this year.”

Again, Pollitt reiterated the need to keep the middle school funding in the capital improvement plan if only to prove to county residents the council has not abandoned the project in the future.

“I agree we won’t be able to do it, but we have to make an effort on behalf of those advocating for that school to move forward with it,” he said. “I’ve never hidden my skepticism that we can afford it, but we don’t need to make that decision today. I will not be irresponsible on this. I will not come forward to recommend this if we can’t afford it.”

Meanwhile, Councilman Joe Holloway said he approached Wicomico Board of Education members about reviewing the preliminary plans in an effort to reduce the cost of the estimated $64 million middle school. However, Holloway said his request appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

“The school board doesn’t want to budge on this,” he said. “I asked them if we could do a value engineering study to see if we can get the cost down, but they said absolutely not. Part of our due diligence over the next several months is to look into these things and see if there is any way to bring the cost down, but the school board doesn’t want to hear any of that.”

Councilman Bob Caldwell said the elected officials should make it known in no uncertain terms there will likely not be funding available for the school construction project.

“I think it’s time we come to the table and tell everybody up front we can’t afford it this year,” said Caldwell. “We’re not going to give some smoke and mirrors impression for the next four months. If we can’t afford it, let’s be honest up front about it.”

Like many other school construction projects across the Lower Shore and around Maryland, the new Bennett Middle School has already been through several steps in the state and local approval process. Pollitt warned backing off on its support now could jeopardize state funding already approved for the project.

“If we take it out of the loop, we might not be able to get it back in,” said Pollitt. “That’s how this funding cycle works. We could end up at the back of the line.”

Caldwell reiterated the inclusion of the project in the capital improvement plan did not commit the county to fund the project in the next fiscal year. He urged his colleagues to improve the plan with the school project in place.

“We have the option of not funding it, even if we leave it on this list,” said Caldwell. “If we don’t, we run the risk of losing the state funding that has already been approved.”

Councilman Matt Holloway agreed the project should remain in the capital plan, but also agreed the school board’s collective feet should be held to the fire to find a way to lower the project’s cost.

“I agree we should leave it on the table, but they can’t expect to get everything they ask for,” he said. “We need to see if there is any way we can get the construction cost down, even if it means compromising on certain things.”

Pollitt said the county’s elected officials had an obligation to explore funding opportunities, even if it didn’t appear realistic at the moment.

“Let’s give it all the time we have to try to find a way to fund it,” he said. “We owe it to the people of the community to try. If we try and fail, at least we’ll be able to sleep at night.”