County Favors Replacing Old Showell Elementary School

County Favors Replacing Old Showell Elementary School
The County Commissioners’ preferred site plan for the new Showell Elementary School is shown. Rendering by Becker Morgan

BERLIN — A new Showell Elementary School (SES) got the go-ahead this week from the Worcester County Commission, which agreed with the Board of Education that replacing the building will be more beneficial than renovating the existing structure.

The project is ready to move to the design phase and the commissioners have promised to make finding the $650,000 design fee a “top shelf” priority.

The feasibility study was presented to the Board of Education earlier this summer but Tuesday was the first chance the county had to review the plan and the reaction was positive. The commissioners favored the school board’s recommendation that SES be completely replaced instead of just renovated.

“I have to say that I’m delighted that you decided [to go with] a whole new school,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “We had a good experience [replacing] Ocean City Elementary in that the young children had no disruption to their classwork.”

“To me, at least personally, it’s a no-brainer to build a new school,” agreed Commission President Bud Church.

Minimal impact on students was an important factor that was weighed when debating replacement versus renovations. Because there is plenty of room on the SES lot for the new building to be constructed parallel to the existing, students would not have to be shuffled around during construction.

Other factors that were considered were cost and long-term value. The company behind the feasibility study, Becker Morgan Group, told the commission that they were in line with the Board of Education in recommending a new school (Option B) over upgrading the current facility (Option A).

While a renovation wouldn’t be as large scale as a completely new building, Brad Hastings, vice president of Becker Morgan, told the commission that the costs of bringing in more portable classrooms and other expenses means that Option B is actually less costly in the long run.

“So then the total project cost for renovation being $51.5 million versus the new construction being about $47.5 million,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest factor considered when weighing the options was long-term usability. The current SES was built in 1976, and while some additions have been made since that time, the overall building has a number of deficiencies. These include an aged roof, deteriorating tile, some poorly insulated ceiling tiles, limited amounts of asbestos remaining, minor over-population, an HVAC system past its life-expectancy, ventilation issues and, due to the school’s age, non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and energy code, among other problems.

Renovations could address these issues but as more students move into Showell, Hastings remarked that a new building was just the best overall move.

“It’s less costly in the long run but I think as far as the educational requirements go it provides a much better solution to the problems that are currently being faced there in regards to accommodating the additional students,” he said.

The commission was also interested in looking further down the calendar and the best way to use the large lot that SES sits on.

“Have you ever considered a two-story building?” asked Commissioner Louise Gulyas.

There are no two-story elementary schools currently in Worcester County. Commissioner Jim Purnell echoed Gulyas in urging Becker Morgan and the school board to think about a multi-story school. Student populations will continue to grow in the years ahead, said Purnell, and having a second story would mean more classroom space on the same site.

A two-story school is certainly something that the designers can look at in the next phase of the project, said Hastings. The cost most likely wouldn’t be much greater than the Option B proposal, which would double the existing SES from 52,000 square feet to 104,000 square feet. However, adding a second story would increase the disruption factor for students.

All of the remaining questions can be examined during the design phase, which Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson wants to see begin this month. It would stretch to May 2015, on-track for a new SES by the fall of 2019. However, the $650,000 that Wilson requested to move forward in FY15 hasn’t yet been identified in the county budget.

“We know that in the multi-year plan we have monies set aside for 2016 and 2017, we have not yet finalized the current year fund balance,” said Harold Higgins, chief administrative officer for the county.

Church promised that the commissioners would put the issue on the “top shelf” and should be able to secure the funding in the near future.