SALISBURY – Concerned citizens are calling on officials to restore funding for improvements at Mardela Middle and High School after learning the project had been removed from the county’s proposed Capital Improvement Program.
On Tuesday, residents and school officials came before the Wicomico County Council in a public hearing on the proposed capital budget and fiscal years 2021-2025 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) seeking support to restore funding for a renovation and addition project at Mardela Middle and High School.
Resident Michelle Wright said she learned County Executive Bob Culver had removed the Mardela project from the CIP earlier this month. She added that funding was desperately needed for improvements at the school.
“I want to make sure everyone understands a project such as this takes five to 10 years from start to finish,” she said. “We can’t wait five to 10 years for our kids to get a school that they so desperately need. Right now, the current CIP does not have any funding for Mardela for the next five years.”
Mardela Middle and High School was built in 1958 and received its last major renovation in 1980. The renovation and addition project is second on the school system’s priority list behind the replacement of Beaver Run Elementary School.
Last March, officials presented the school board with a feasibility study outlining four options for improving Mardela Middle and High. The recommended option – which is estimated to cost roughly $72 million – called for an extensive renovation and addition featuring enhanced instructional space, a new auxiliary gym, common areas for specific age groups and more.
The project was included in Culver’s CIP presentation in December. But residents told the council this week they were surprised the project had since been removed.
“Every one of our elected officials claims to stand for education,” said Eileen Johnson, a representative for the advocacy group PUSH4Education. “It’s time for them to work together to get it done.”
This will be the second year in a row funding for the school project has been removed from the CIP.
Wright said Culver’s reasoning for removing the project from the proposed CIP this year rested on the state’s decision to defer planning approval for the school because of fiscal constraints. Superintendent Donna Hanlin told the council the state’s deferral did not mean the recommendation process had concluded.
“While the state has not yet given planning approval for the Mardela Middle and High renovation project – or the Westside Intermediate roof, for that matter, which has remained in the CIP – the state is only one-third of the way through its recommendations this year,” Hanlin said. “This process is ongoing. The state will continue to consider the Mardela project as it develops its final list of recommendations, which may not come until June.”
She urged county officials to work together to put the Mardela project back into the CIP.
“If the state doesn’t see that the county is allocating funds for school projects, the state will be less likely to give planning approval and eventually state construction funding,” she said.
Members of the county council this week said they would work with the administration to include the project in the CIP. While the council can approve, decrease and delete items in the planning document, it cannot add or increase projects.
In a work session following the public hearing, Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg said the administration was working alongside school system officials to evaluate what funds can be repurposed.
“We cannot repurpose any bond funds until all the projects that were approved in that bond issuance are certified, completed or abandoned,” he said. “In some instances, they can be repurposed and in others they can’t.”
Strausburg told the council Culver supported the renovation and addition project at Mardela, but questioned the scope and cost of the project.
“I certainly agree that something has to be done with that school,” he said. “I believe the executive agrees with that. It’s a matter of coming to an agreement with what and when, and making those decisions in light of state actions.”
Strausburg said the county could benefit from proposed legislation in Annapolis that would provide counties with fewer than 20,000 students additional funding for soft costs, including architectural, engineering and consulting fees. He asked for patience as officials determined what funding would come from the state and how the county would fund recommendations from the Kirwan Commission.
“All I’m urging at this point in time is a little bit of patience, gathering more information and having further discussions so we can come to an agreement that makes sense,” he said.
Members of the council said it was important to add the Mardela project into the CIP if the county wanted to take advantage of state funding. But Strausburg said officials still had time to consider the project.