SNOW HILL – Plans for a new Showell Elementary School are moving ahead but only after the Worcester County Commissioners cut the project’s estimated cost.
The Worcester County Commissioners approved the school system’s request to move forward with a design for the new school but only after setting the price tag for the overall project at $37 million. School system estimates had set the cost of the project at $54 million.
“Was it a surprise? Sure,” said Bob Rothermel, president of the school board. “But we keep moving forward.”
Rothermel said education officials were still analyzing what the commissioners’ decision would mean for the project, which can now move into the design phase. Construction of the new school is currently expected to begin in 2019.
The commissioners’ decision to settle on a $37 million cost this week came after a presentation from Commissioner Jim Bunting and Harold Higgins, the county’s chief administrative officer. Bunting said he and Higgins, along with Commissioners Chip Bertino and Ted Elder, formed a committee to look at school construction expenses because they were concerned about the potential cost of the new Showell school. He said they met with school system officials in January.
“I left the meeting with high hopes the county commissioners and the board of education were on common ground,” Bunting said. “Unfortunately at the February meeting we did not reach an agreement on what was affordable and cost effective.”
Because of that, the committee members began researching school construction costs, talking to architects and visiting other schools.
“We’ve had to do our homework and deviate from what has been the process for years,” Bunting said.
They also looked at Worcester County’s past school construction projects. Higgins said that a decade ago, when Ocean City Elementary School was built, construction costs were $205 a square foot. In all, the school cost just under $18 million. The most recent school construction project in Worcester County however, Snow Hill High School, cost $410 a square foot — or just under $50 million. The latest estimates for Showell show an expense of $525 per square foot.
“School construction costs vary wildly,” Higgins said.
Projects in other jurisdictions the committee looked at ranged from $18 million to $40 million. The group opted to visit Lothian Elementary School, an Anne Arundel County facility that is currently under construction, to see what was being built there for $31.7 million.
Following the visit, the committee concluded that a new 90,000-square-foot school could be built for $37 million. That, Higgins said, was a cost the county could absorb.
“The lower the debt the greater the likelihood this project moves forward,” he said.
The commissioners voted 6-0, with Commissioner Bud Church absent, to approve a cost of $37 million for the project. It was only then that Jerry Wilson, superintendent of Worcester County schools, was invited to present his request for $570,000 to move forward with the design of a new Showell Elementary School.
“Our children’s education depends on a strong partnership between the board of education and the county commissioners,” Wilson said. “The stewardship of our elected officials has permitted the renovation and addition of Snow Hill High School and Pocomoke High School in the last five years … In order to continue to provide excellent educational facilities we must continue to look forward to address our aging facilities.”
Bunting pointed out that the $570,000 design cost went along with a $54 million school. He said a design cost of $255,000 would be more in line with a $37 million project.
“The commissioners need to decide to approve $570,000 or approve a number that reflects what we voted on earlier,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said he didn’t think the commissioners needed to micromanage design costs.
“If they use $250,000, that’s great,” he said. “If they use $570,000, that’s another $200,000 they’re not going to have to build the school.”
The commissioners, with Mitrecic opposed, voted to give the school system $255,000 for the school design. They also voted to approve the school system’s capital improvement plan with the revised Showell numbers.
Following the meeting, Rothermel said the school system would do its best to work within the cost parameters the commissioners set. He pointed out that the $54 million estimate for Showell was based on state school construction numbers.
“We never made a request for a $54 million project,” he said.
He added that education officials were simply happy to see the long-awaited project move forward.