Superintendent Makes Bennett Middle Pitch

SALISBURY — Just days after Wicomico officials expressed doubt about the availability of funding for a new James M. Bennett Middle School in the current year’s budget, the county’s Superintendent of Schools outlined several reasons why the money should be found for the new facility.

Last Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council voted to keep a new Bennett Middle School on the county’s 2012 capital improvement “wish list,” but expressed deep reservations about finding the estimated $15 million for the facility in this year’s budget. Inclusion on the county’s capital improvement plan does not commit the county to funding the project, but merely keeps it in the planning pipeline until funding becomes available. County Executive Rick Pollitt, Jr. all but acknowledged finding funding for the new middle school was a long shot, but urged the county council to keep it in Wicomico’s long-range capital improvement plan.

“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.”

This week, Wicomico County Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Fredericksen thanked the county elected officials for keeping the project alive on the long-range planning document and urged the county council to find a way to fund the new middle school. Fredericksen outlined several reasons for finding the $15 million needed for the new school.

“In fiscal year 2010, the County Council approved $5 million in construction for this project, but the sale of those bonds is still pending,” he said in a statement. “It is critically important for the county to vote to fund this year’s capital request of $15 million for a number of reasons.”

Fredericksen then outlined dozens of reasons to move forward with the project, from the importance of its timing to the condition of the existing school along with several others. On the issue of timing, Fredericksen explained Wicomico has received state planning approval for a new Bennett Middle and is expected to receive state funding for construction this year, which could be in jeopardy if the county does not hold up its end of the equation.

“If county funding does not come through, it could mean that the state funding is not allocated,” he said. “If Wicomico misses the state funding cycle for Bennett Middle construction this year, it would, in all likelihood, increase the projected cost of the project and delay it for several more years. While we understand and appreciate the tough economic conditions we are all in, we also realize that these same conditions are extremely favorable for construction.”

A replacement Bennett Middle School has always been tied to a large phased-in project for the entire site, including a new James M. Bennett High School, which was completed last year. However, the entire Bennett High School complex cannot be finished until the existing Bennett Middle is demolished and rebuilt in a different location, according to Fredericksen.

In terms of instruction at the existing Berlin Middle School, Fredericksen said the facility’s current condition and lack of up-to-date features could create a gap for many students before they get to the new Bennett High School.

“Students attending Bennett Middle come from several elementary schools, many of which use the latest instructional technologies,” he said. “Many Bennett Middle students will go on to James M. Bennett High to experience its technology-rich instructional environment, but during their three years at Bennett Middle, access to instructional technology is severely limited by the facility.”

Fredericksen also expressed deep concern about the current condition of the existing facility. He said the school does not include a fire suppression system, does not meet the new life safety building codes and does not meet the accessibility standards. In addition, the current facility does not have a full HVAC system.

“The school is deficient in many aspects, as was outlined in the feasibility study done in 2005,” he said. “Bennett Middle is the only large school in Wicomico County without air conditioning.”

Fredericksen also pointed out the current middle school has lost the after-school use of its grounds due to the construction of the new high school. For that and many other reasons, the middle school has lost its connection with the surrounding community.

“We are all aware of the funding issues government faces at all levels given the current revenue issues,” he said. “The school system is developing its own budget for fiscal year 2012 and we face difficult decisions in trying to live up to our responsibility of providing a quality education even with shrinking resources. While this may not be an easy time for the county to vote on funding a major project like Bennett Middle, it is the right time.”