SNOW HILL – Plans for a new Showell Elementary School failed to move forward this week as county officials couldn’t agree how to proceed.
On Tuesday, neither a motion to approve the concept plan for the new school nor a motion to reconsider the plan in October passed.
“There’s no way I can say it was anything but disappointing,” said Jonathan Cook, president of the Worcester County Board of Education.
Cook, who attended the meeting with a group of school system officials, parents and teachers, said he was asked to arrive at 1 p.m. for the presentation of the concept plan for a new Showell Elementary School. A lengthy discussion on body piercing legislation, however, pushed the presentation back until after 2 p.m.
“It appears there was more meaningful thought put into a body piercing issue than a school that’s 40 years old with its whole second-grade in trailers,” Cook said.
School system officials on Tuesday were seeking approval of the concept plan for a new Showell Elementary School. The school board approved the plan in August and wants to see the project move forward so construction can start in 2019.
The project, which has been discussed for years, drew criticism from the commissioners in 2015 because it was estimated at $54 million, a price they said the county couldn’t afford. In recent months, however, the project had been moving forward, as the commissioners formally set the school’s price tag at $37 million last fall.
On Tuesday, Becker Morgan Group’s Brad Hastings told the commissioners his company created a concept plan for a new 94,866-square-foot school that could be complete by 2021. The new facility would be built behind the existing school and would include space for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. After getting estimates from three building companies, he said he was projecting the school’s cost to come to $46 million.
Construction will come to about $37 million while associated costs, such as furniture, engineering fees, playground equipment and the like, will bring the total cost to $46 million.
He said the state was expected to contribute $7.5 million, which would leave county government with a local funding request for $38,428,959.
“We’re very early in the process,” he said. “There’s still room to look for cost savings and what’s going to work best for the school.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting questioned the “soft costs” associated with the project. He said they’d been estimated at $7 million early in the process and were now closer to $10 million.
The pro forma estimate prepared by the commissioners set construction costs at $25,280,000 and allowed $7.9 million for associated costs. Bunting asked whether there were ways to bring the cost of the new school down.
“There are absolutely opportunities to look at savings as we move forward,” Hastings said.
Bunting said the commissioners had tried to allow for future costs when they developed the pro forma.
“Your design estimate is a little scary,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic asked about the pre-kindergarten plans for the school. The drawings shown to the commissioners illustrated two pre-kindergarten classrooms but showed space for four more. Mitrecic said that if the state mandated full-day pre-kindergarten, the school would be too small. He said any savings during construction would go toward building those optional pre-kindergarten classrooms.
“If we approve this today and it comes in under budget, you’re going to use that to build those,” he said.
Hastings pointed out that the costs shown in the presentation were all estimates. Superintendent Jerry Wilson said local officials couldn’t predict what mandates would come from the state but wanted to show the classrooms in the plans in case they proved necessary. He added that the school couldn’t accept all of its pre-kindergarten applicants right now.
When Mitrecic asked if the school system would be returning to the commissioners throughout the design and construction process, officials said they would. Mitrecic then made a motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Bud Church, to approve the concept plan. It failed with a 3-3 vote.
Commissioner Chip Bertino, who voted against the motion, said he was concerned because Commissioner Ted Elder wasn’t present.
“I know he had some questions,” he said.
Bertino then made a motion to have school system officials return for the commissioners’ Oct. 4 meeting. That too failed with a 3-3 vote.
Kelly Shannahan, the county’s assistance chief administrative officer, said the concept plan could still be discussed in October.
It’s not set for next meeting but it’s very possible it might come up next meeting,” he said.
During an interview Wednesday, Wilson said the school system was still evaluating the implications of Tuesday’s votes but that he anticipated returning to the commissioners Oct. 4.
“This is such an extremely important project we feel compelled to get our commissioners to support this project,” he said.
Cook echoed his commitment.
“We are going to work with the commissioners,” he said. “We’re going to get it worked out. I believe in their hearts everybody wants this done.”
Cook said parents were sorry to see the project delayed as the existing school had been outgrown years ago. He said his daughter attended Showell in 2004 and was taught in a trailer.
“She’s in college now and those trailers are still there,” he said.
What made Tuesday’s lack of decision particularly frustrating, he added, was the fact that he’d been in frequent communication with the commissioners since they released their pro forma estimate. He said he spoke to them as late as Monday.
“Surprises are great for Christmas and birthdays but shouldn’t happen between government entities,” he said.