Pollitt Eyes Bennett Middle Funding Task Force

SALISBURY — Undaunted by a Wicomico County Council decision earlier this month to remove funding for a new Bennett Middle School from next year’s capital improvement plan, Wicomico County Executive Richard M. Pollitt, Jr. this week announced he is forming a special task force to explore alternative funding opportunities for the project.

The Wicomico County Council on March 1 voted 5-2 to remove $16 million included for a new Bennett Middle School in Salisbury from its fiscal year 2012 capital improvement plan after expressing doubt about the town’s ability to secure funding from the bond market for the project. While the council supports a future Bennett Middle School, some on the elected body voiced concern about the county’s ability to pay for the estimated $70 million project considering the current economic climate and the county’s debt concerns.

However, Pollitt, who has said he has his own doubts about the county’s ability to pay for the project, has refused to let the issue die and this week called for the formation of a special task force to explore alternative funding sources.

“This project is too important to the quality of our children’s education and the health of the Bennett Middle School population to allow undue delay,” Pollitt said. “I am, therefore, calling for the immediate assembly of a special task force for the purpose of seeking dynamic, workable solutions to this daunting problem.”

Pollitt called for the task force to include a broad representation of stakeholders and urged the body to immediately begin exploring ways to move the middle school project forward.

“I propose that I and members of my staff, representatives of the Board of Education and representatives from the County Council meet as soon as possible to develop a plan to keep this critical education project on track,” he said. “I appreciate all the hard work done by the School Building Commission to date, and I believe the progress accomplished by the commission represents an excellent place to start our review.”

While Pollitt announced his decision to form the task force on Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council was holding its regularly scheduled meeting and discussed the county executive’s proposal. Council Vice President Joe Holloway said the elected body had taken some shots since the decision to remove the Bennett Middle School project from the capital improvement plan in early March, but stood behind the reasoning for the decision.

The Bennett Middle School construction is considered the next phase of the larger school construction project that included a new James M. Bennett High School. Because that project was completed ahead of schedule and the new high school opened last fall does not mean the Bennett Middle project needs to be expedited, according to Joe Holloway.

“We’ve received some support, and we’ve received some complaints, but this council did not delay Bennett Middle,” he said. “We put it back on its regular schedule.”

Even before the council voted to remove Bennett Middle from the county’s capital improvement plan, county elected officials voiced concern a delay in the project could result in the loss of state funding already approved for the new school. However, Councilman Matt Holloway said during this week’s meeting he received a letter from the state’s Interagency for School Construction, which holds the purse strings for state funding for new school construction, suggesting Wicomico’s removal of Bennett Middle from its capital improvement plan would not influence the state funding decision.

“The letter clearly states we will not be put at the back of the line,” said Matt Holloway. “I know it’s been brought up that removing the project from the capital plan could result in the loss of state funding for the project, but according to this letter, that’s simply not the case.”

Before its March 1 vote to remove Bennett Middle from the county’s long-range capital improvement plan, council members voiced concern about selling the bonds necessary to finance the project. When Pollitt expressed a desire this week to form a task force to study funding options for the new school, Council President Gail Bartkovich questioned what the alternative might cost the county.

“If we can’t afford to go to the bond market, how can we afford some other financing that may be more expensive for the county,” she said.

Since the March 1 vote, Pollitt has had several meetings with his staff, other elected officials and Board of Education leadership to discuss the future of the project and to look into alternative means of construction financing outside the traditional selling of bonds.

Joe Holloway, meanwhile, continued to defend the decision to omit Bennett Middle from the county’s capital improvement plan, citing an example of a Charles County school for which ground had been broken, only to have construction halted after funding fell through.

“If we had gone ahead with the $16 million this year, ground would have been broken and contracts would have been signed and then the project would have been halted,” he said. “We would be in much bigger trouble next year.”