Wicomico Council Decides To Support New Bennett

SALISBURY — After listening to new financial data and hearing from members of the public, the Wicomico County Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to send a letter supporting progressing with building a new James M. Bennett Middle School (BMS).

“I can’t justify kicking this can down the road further,” said Councilman Matt Holloway.

The decision by the council to endorse a “Letter of Intent” is a reversal of its previous position on the matter. Last week, again with a 4-3 vote, the council decided not to commit to funding the estimated $75.3 million BMS replacement project, $42.8 million of which would be footed by Wicomico.

At the time, several members of the council referenced uncertain finances as the main reason for not wanting to commit the funding. While not much has changed financially in Wicomico in a week, data presented by Deputy Director of Finance Andy Mackel was optimistic enough to persuade Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman to swing her vote from against supporting the project to for it.

Mackel presented information to the council regarding the future of Wicomico’s finances and came to the general conclusion that things should improve enough within the next few years to make a new BMS affordable. Mackel’s optimism was in direct contrast to the more pessimistic views of some of the council.

“This is all assumptions,” pointed out Council President Joe Holloway.
“They’re reasonable assumptions,” countered Mackel.

Mackel defended the information presented to the council Tuesday as “data-driven hope, not just hope.” The discussion split members of the audience who attended the meeting Tuesday, much as the debate as a whole has caused many Wicomico residents to draw up camps over the last few months.

“You’re committing us to something that will go on for years and years and years,” said Dave Parker.

Parker was skeptical of Mackel’s economic predictions, including the belief that the housing market was headed toward a recovery. He noted that the numbers for how Wicomico could afford a new BMS seemed to repeatedly change, at least from his perception.

“It moves all over the place … is this a shell game or is it real?” asked Parker.

G.A. Harrison agreed that the exact numbers weren’t clear and felt that it would be too much of a risk to push ahead with the project now. He pointed out the uncertainty of this year’s budget.

“[County Executive Rick] Pollitt doesn’t know what his budget is going to look like,” said Harrison.

Parker also expressed displeasure with the final design of the new BMS, comparing it to the Taj Mahal and claiming that the county was trying to build “a Ferrari when we need to build a Fiat.”

Others in the audience shared his concerns over the building. Shawn Jester called for the plans to be redrawn to a simpler design with less “bells and whistles.”

“They’re middle schoolers; they can learn in a box,” he said.

Councilman Bob Culver admitted to some trepidation over the complexity of the current design and asked if it might be possible to change aspects of the schematics without risking losing approval from the state. Mackel explained that while minor details could be altered, nothing that changes the fundamentals of the structure such as square footage could be affected.

Culver was in favor of going back to the drawing board to try to come up with a cheaper design, even if it meant the money Wicomico has already bonded toward the project is forfeited.

“I’m willing to spend $1 million to save $10 million,” he said.

The idea was echoed by Jester, who pointed out that the money committed so far towards a new BMS was not “a runaway train” that needs to keep having more funds fed into it. Instead, he advised cutting the county’s losses.

“We can stop this,” said Jester.

Board of Education President Ron Willey defended the design and asserted everything about the building was meant to be functional.

“It’s designed that way for a purpose … It will save us money in the long run,” he said.

Willey explained that the building will be more energy efficient because of the way in which it is built and that it wasn’t simply a matter of aesthesis. Board of Education Director of Facilities Brian Foret added that if the project was sent back to the drawing board, there was no guarantee that the money already pledged by the state would still be available and that BMS could be put in the back of the line for funding.

Besides the building itself, the council noted that there have been some concerns expressed in the community about the parcel of land that a new BMS would sit on. However, Foret assured the council that every angle had already been covered.

“All of those things have been identified and covered in the budget,” he promised, referring specifically to flooding concerns and whether the current road leading to the site could handle the increased traffic.

While the project had its share of detractors, it also had an equal amount of support from the audience.

“It is not about the aesthetics of the building,” said Kim Hudson, speaking on behalf of Parents in Action, a Wicomico education advocacy group. “It is about the health and safety of the students.”

Jaime Toner, a parent and business owner, acknowledged that it was “healthy” to ask questions about how the new school will be financed. But she agreed with Mackel’s belief that Wicomico should start to climb out of the recession over the next few years.

“We’ve got business to do,” Toner said. “We’ve got stuff to build.”

Additionally, she informed the council of a survey conducted within the Chamber of Commerce. According to Toner, of the more than 100 chamber members polled, 85 percent of them supported going ahead with the new BMS project. It was, in Toner’s opinion, a clear indicator that the business community in Wicomico endorses the project.

Peggy Butchness, a parent whose children graduated from BMS in the 1980s, said that even then she had concerns with the condition of the school and that the issues have multiplied in the last three decades.

Butchness also pointed out that a new school would help bolster the county’s economy, making Mackel’s predictions something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. She stressed that a good school system was the top priority for every family she ever met that was considering a move. By modernizing Wicomico’s schools, Butchness predicted a rise in the housing market.

When it came time to vote, the council members stuck to previous stances from the week before, with the exception of Prettyman.

At the prior meeting, Prettyman had voted with the majority of the council not to endorse a letter of support. However, after hearing Mackel’s plan, which would not rely on using money bonded for James M. Bennett High School, Prettyman felt comfortable enough with the numbers to change her vote, though she asserted that the decision was difficult.

The council vote was praised by Pollitt, who has already penned his own letter of support for the project.

“Today, Wicomico County took a giant step forward as a community,” Pollitt said.

After receiving the letter Tuesday, officials met Wednesday with the Maryland Board of Public Works and the Interagency Committee for School Construction (IAC) in Annapolis to lobby for additional funding to move ahead with the project. Currently, the IAC has recommended $4.5 million, though Wicomico officials hope that they will be able to change that number to $10 million. A decision is expected in March.