Wicomico Undecided On Bennett Middle Support

SALISBURY — With the need to weigh a potential property tax increase, debt increase and whether heavy renovations would accomplish the same goal as replacement, the Wicomico County Council chose to continue discussion on Bennett Middle School (BMS) at a work session later this month before making a final decision on a new school building.

The council began its meeting by hearing a strategy on how it could fund replacing BMS if it so chose. During County Executive Rick Pollitt’s Capital Investment Plan report, the council learned that $14 million is currently available from other sources, including money set aside for Bennett High School (BHS) renovations, which could be funneled into the BMS project.  

Additionally, bonds for the school could be put off for several years, delaying debt worries until after Fiscal Year 2013, though they would eventually catch-up. Pollitt called his plan “aggressive but reasonable” and believes it is the first step toward changing Wicomico’s ranking at the bottom of the state as far as funding for infrastructure goes.

“This is an attempt to try to start a reversal of that trend,” he said.

Even with the $14 million, the county would still need to put up nearly $29 million more to meet its portion of the cost for a new BMS, with the state covering the remainder of the approximately $73 million total bill.

“We’re being asked to commit to funds before we know what revenue we have coming in,” said Councilman Bob Culver.

Culver wondered if it might be possible to instead use that $14 million already available to finance heavy renovations to the current BMS building.

“Have we ever looked at what an extensive remodeling would cost?” he asked, adding that he felt the $14 million would “go a long way.”

Brian Foret, director of Facility Services for the Board of Education, didn’t believe that the $14 million would stretch as far as Culver hoped.

“I don’t think $14 million would begin to address all of the problems you have at Bennett Middle School,” he said.

Foret also explained to Culver that the school board had looked into the possibility of renovations instead of replacement years before, but studies had found building a new school to be more “cost effective” than trying to bring the old building up to par with County and State regulations, as well as other schools in the area. Even if the county wanted to concentrate on remodeling, said Foret, the state was expecting a new school to be built and the money it offered for that probably would not be available for a renovation project.

“That’s not what the state agreed to do,” he said.
Councilman Stevie Prettyman stated her support for sticking with the original plan of replacing BMS.
“I would like to see this project move forward and build Bennett Middle,” she said.

However, she admitted that she was “very uncomfortable with the figures here.” The cost of the school to the county would be significant and would likely mean a 7-cent increase to property taxes to help bring in the needed revenue.

“We have to understand what we’re obligating the citizens of this county for,” she reminded the assembly.

Many members of the public were vocal about their willingness to take a tax increase if it meant a new BMS.

“Our children are worth it,” said Kim Hudson, who spoke on behalf of Parents in Action, a group of parents of Wicomico County students who advocate for more funding to go to schools.

Hudson told the council that students have been waiting for and deserve a new BMS building. She also warned the council that she saw public opinion very much in favor of a new BMS and that eventually a council will vote for the project, even if it’s not this particular council.

“Not moving forward with this project is putting off the inevitable,” she said. “Take the risk and be the council that moves this county forward.”

Hudson concluded her comments by asking the council to make education a priority in the county. The sentiment was echoed by citizen Nichole Monday, who saio=d the council’s budget needs to be “proactive” in 2012.

“The budget process is an expression of our county values,” she said.

In her opinion, a proactive budget was “one in which we can all be proud” and to be proactive means to include funding for a new BMS.

While some speakers went on the record saying they would support a tax increase if it led to the completion of the BMS project, not everyone saw the need for a new school.

“I have yet to see how a new school building equals a better education,” argued citizen Kay Gibson.

Gibson claimed that there are prestigious private schools with buildings “more than 100 years old.” The possible tax increase would hit those on fixed incomes like the elderly too hard, she continued.

“It seems never ending,” said Gibson. “People have their limits.”

With so much to consider, the council voted to take up the thread of the discussion again at a Jan. 17 work session. It has until Jan. 20 to decide if it would like to send a letter to the state continuing support for a new BMS building. Pollitt has already written such a letter.

While most of the council agreed that the extra time for analysis was necessary, Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes felt the delay was unwarranted and expressed frustration at the pace her colleagues are tackling the project.

“I almost feel we’re not any further with the decision than we were as a council a year ago,” she said.