SNOW HILL – A disagreement between the Worcester County Commissioners and local education officials could slow the design of a new Showell Elementary School.
The Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-2 this week to let state officials know they weren’t in agreement with revisions to the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) submitted by the Worcester County Board of Education. The decision came after the commissioners failed to accept the school system’s justification for a change in enrollment figures shown in the CIP.
“A county commissioner-supported CIP is critical to the approval of the planning request by the interagency committee on school construction and the Board of Public Works,” said Carrie Sterrs, the school system’s coordinator of public relations, Wednesday. “Yesterday’s action has the potential for setting the project back a year.”
The conflict between the school board and the county commissioners stems from an October agreement by the commissioners to set a $37 million price tag on a new Showell Elementary School. School system officials had planned for a $54 million facility.
When the commissioners cut the cost for the project, the school system reduced the size of the planned building from 104,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet. Because of that, they decreased enrollment from 657 to 616.
Jerry Wilson, superintendent of county schools, said the school system’s capacity calculations were based on the square footage of Ocean City Elementary School, the most recently constructed elementary school in the north end of the county. That building is 88,000 square feet and has a capacity of 602 students. Wilson added that capacity calculations were still conceptual at this point.
“School size and capacity cannot be accurately determined until education specifications and schematic designs are complete,” Wilson said.
He added that Worcester County Board of Education policy mandated a class size of 16-to-one and that was taken into account in capacity calculations.
“Parents consistently tell us small class sizes are their number one or their number two priority,” Wilson said.
County Commission President Jim Bunting asked Wilson what amount of space the state mandated per student. Wilson replied that the state student to teacher ratio was 22-to-one.
“The school could handle a lot more students than what you’re doing under your policy,” Bunting said.
Commissioner Chip Bertino also questioned the school system’s policy.
“Has the board of education considered adapting its numbers to better reflect the economic conditions we face?” Bertino said.
Wilson said the community supported small class sizes and so the board had not adjusted its policy.
Bertino said he was concerned that the school board by adjusting enrollment numbers was implying a new 90,000-square-foot school wouldn’t be able to handle the necessary number of students.
“You’re laying the marker down so two or three years from now the board of education can come back and say ‘see we told you,’” Bertino said. “The board of education doesn’t seem willing to do some things internally that would accommodate the students we need to educate in that school.”
Bertino added that at the October meeting of the school board, the cost constraints associated with the new school were never even discussed.
“It really does seem that you and the board of education are putting up barriers for us to get that school built,” he said. ‘I find it a little bit disingenuous that you and the board are not sensitive to the fact that we have a budget we need to work with.”
Bob Rothermel, president of the school board, said officials were simply following the process set out by the state.
“What you’ve done is given us a dollar sign,” he said. “We still have to go through our process.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic pointed out that like the commissioners, members of the school board were elected by county residents. He said that if citizens elected these individuals they must be comfortable with the way they were running the board of education.
“I think we’re overstepping our bounds getting into the number of students in the school,” he said. “We need to let the school board do what they need to do with the money we’ve allocated. We set the number. They have to make it work. Why we’re grilling the superintendent of schools is beyond me.”
Commissioner Bud Church, a former 10-year school board member, said he agreed with Mitrecic. He said in his more than a dozen years as a commissioner he’d never seen such a divide between county officials and the board of education.
“It would appear to me we are crossing the lines and trying to micromanage the school board,” he said. “Let them do their job.”
He added that with every delay, construction costs would only increase.
“Time is money,” he said. “This should have been resolved six, eight months ago.”
Bunting brought up the commissioners’ recent inquiries into school construction projects in other parts of the state. He said Lothian Elementary School in Anne Arundel County was 84,588 square feet and was expected to cost $31.7 million.
“We think we’ve allowed plenty of money to build this school,” he said.
Church replied that the Eastern Shore didn’t have the easy access workforce and materials that Anne Arundel County did.
“You’re not comparing apples to apples,” he said.
Commissioner Diana Purnell said she thought school system officials should be able to work with county commissioners to build an affordable school.
“We’re not going to micromanage you but you shouldn’t try to micromanage us either,” she said. “You sit down and work together. We are adults.”
Purnell said the school system could change its process.
“It can’t remain the same because we’re not living in the same times now,” she said. “We give and we give and we give. We can’t continue to give and kill other people. Our people working in the county, other than the school board, they haven’t gotten raises. And we’re looking at other cuts. We can’t keep doing that.”
Purnell stressed that education officials and the county government would have to work in unison.
“Yes we were all elected,” she said, “but we were elected for a bigger position than what you got, to manage this entire county … We need to work together.”
Bunting said the school system’s explanation of the change in enrollment was not satisfactory. Bertino made the motion to advise state officials that the county commissioners didn’t approve the CIP adjustments. The motion passed with Mitrecic and Church voting against it.