SNOW HILL — The cost of a proposed Snow Hill High School (SHHS) renovations and the expansion of parks in Worcester County were the two specific items that received public comment during a review of the county’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) Tuesday.
While the County Commission was willing to discuss the details of parks and schools in Worcester, the commissioners unanimously told the public that on many points, their hands are tied by the state.
“One of our big problems is the state. If you want to direct some arrows at anyone, start looking towards the state,” Commission President Bud Church told the audience. “That’s where we have our problem. They cut our funding, they add more to us. It’s very difficult, at times, not knowing what’s down the road next.”
A common worry amongst those who commented on the CIP is the estimated end cost of SHHS renovations, which the plan listed at $50,069,747.
“I have to question whether a $50 million school is necessary,” said Kellee Kennett.
She added that a new SHHS building is necessary, but asked the commission if there was any way to trim down on the expense. In Kennett’s opinion, the learning experience is based on the teachers and the resources available to students, not on how nice their building is.
“Putting them in a fancy building, putting them in the Hyatt Hotel, is not going to inspire them,” she argued. “You really need to take another look at that … Do they need a lot of glass? Do they need curved walls? Do they need fancy floors? Just look at it; we’re in a different time now. Get back to basics.”
As a group, the commission quickly pointed out to Kennett that the CIP is not carved in stone.
“This is not a budget,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “This is looking to the future to see what we want. And when we do that, we have to put an estimate on that. So nothing is budgeted.”
As far as her concerns over the price of a new SHHS went, several commissioners admitted that $50 million was a big number to swallow.
Commissioner Madison Bunting told Kennett that he’s had similar concerns about the design of the school.
“I’ve been frustrated about this for two years,” he said.
Bunting compared the current design for the SHHS renovations to the Taj Mahal and added that he would have liked to have seen the aesthetics of the building toned down to save money.
However, state regulations and requirements prevented the commission from extensive control in the design process, said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
“The biggest problem, the truth be known, is the state of Maryland controls what goes into the schools. We don’t,” he said.
If Worcester had tried to make changes to the school design without the state’s consent, it would risk the more than $4.8 million in state funding anticipated for the project, according to Shockley.
“We basically were told that if we wanted state funding … we would do it this way,” he said.
But while the price tag might be “shocking” the commission isn’t throwing money away, continued Shockley. The SHHS renovation is more expensive than other recent school projects, he admitted, but a lot of that is explained by the rising cost of materials and services. When all is said and done, Shockley told Kennett that the state, the county Board of Education and a huge community of parents and teachers are behind the new SHHS and that it is a project that needs to be done, even if there’s some heartburn over the cost.
Unrelated to the school, Kennett also expressed concerns about the amount of land that Worcester is acquiring to turn into parks.
Besides the cost of purchasing and maintaining the land, Kennett pointed out that every acre added to a park is one that can’t be taxed further or developed upon, thus cutting into the revenue the county receives.
But parks are a good tool for attracting events and business, as well as providing a high level of quality of life for residents, according to Boggs.
“This comes under quality of life and we can’t say one takes priority over another,” she said. “But we like to balance things.”
Kennett countered that keeping revenue from taxable properties coming into Worcester helped preserve the quality of life that Boggs mentioned. Like the cost of the SHHS project, Chief Administrative Officers Gerald Mason reminded Kennett that the CIP costs for park expansions or development are only predictions at this point and that no hard funding has been budgeted.
Raising many of the same points that Kennett brought up, Elle Diegelmann also asked the commission to be more transparent in the future in regards to how they arrive at their estimates for CIP costs. And she offered them a warning about accumulating too much debt by going through the bond market to finance SHHS.
Shockley said that the commission has been responsible with paying off debt in anticipation of the SHHS renovations.