SALISBURY – The Wicomico County Board of Education this week approved an expansion to the Bennett Middle School cafeteria, two years after the facility opened in Fruitland.
The $1.4 million project will be paid for using leftover funds from the school’s original construction budget.
The expansion will address overcrowding and safety issues in the school’s cafeteria.
Paul Butler, director of communications and community outreach for Wicomico County Public Schools (WCPS), said the 1,545-square-foot addition will be built onto the existing cafeteria and will allow for 144 additional seats.
“Right now, we need an additional 60 or 70 seats,” he said, “but this will allow for future expansion for years to come.”
Butler explained school officials noticed an overcrowding issue in the cafeteria last year and said Donna Hanlin, superintendent of schools, put in a plan to address the issue.
“After seeing what safety challenges are being caused in the cafeteria at Bennett Middle, it is necessary to prioritize this expansion for the start of the 2018-2019 school year,” Hanlin said in a statement.
This spring, members of a planning and construction group began working on costs for the proposed expansion, according to Butler.
Leisl Ashby, director of facility services for Planning & Construction at Wicomico County Public Schools, wrote that funding to complete the expansion is already available.
“We have the funds for the cafeteria expansion since the original construction of Bennett Middle came in under budget,” she said. “This project would be completed without impacting other project priorities and their associated funding requests.”
When the cafeteria was originally designed in 2013-2014, projected enrollment at Bennett Middle was expected to reach 988 students. The cafeteria was subsequently designed to seat 336 at each lunch shift.
Currently, Bennett Middle has 1,058 students and utilizes a stage platform located in the cafeteria for additional seating.
While the setup is a temporary solution, Butler said an expansion would address safety concerns. Butler said several injuries have occurred in the cafeteria from overcrowded conditions and relayed one student’s fears of accidentally hitting someone at a nearby table and causing a confrontation.
Officials with WCPS plan to use Whiting-Turner Contracting Company to complete the expansion. Whiting-Turner was also responsible for building Bennett Middle’s new facility in Fruitland.
Butler estimates construction will begin this December and will finish before next fall. He said the expansion will cause no disruption to lunch activities.
“It will not impact the cafeteria this year,” he said.
In a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, board member John Palmer justified the expansion.
“If this work is completed … and that population goes down, this work wouldn’t be wasted,” he said. “The school was built so that we can add on to classrooms at either end of the school. It is already there, so we can add onto it and the capacity of the cafeteria will be sufficient.”
Facilities Planner Matt Auchey told the board a contract will be brought before the Board of Education on Sept. 12, following a request for proposal for construction services and notice to proceed to Whiting-Turner.
“The goal of this is to add capacity to deal with this existing overcrowding at the time,” he said.