County Puts New Buckingham School On Hold; Community Rallies As Officials Seek State Funding

County Puts New Buckingham School On Hold; Community Rallies As Officials Seek State Funding
Space in the center of a grade pod, which used to be use for movies and joint lessons, has been converted to additional classroom space, as the school has become overgrown. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – The community is united in its desire to see Buckingham Elementary School replaced.

In the wake of the news that the state will not be providing funding for a new Buckingham Elementary School, local officials, educators, parents and community members have all come forward to share their support for the project.

“Buckingham was built eight short years after the county desegregated schools,” parent Brian Robertson said. “Our children, community and teachers have rallied around the school’s inadequacies for too long.”

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously to pause the county’s latest school construction project, the replacement of Buckingham Elementary School. The decision comes after county staff discovered an irregularity in the school system’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP)—the fact that it didn’t list Buckingham, a project already being designed. When contacted about the CIP, school system officials confirmed that they found out back in February that the state would not be providing funding for a new school because state officials believe there is capacity at adjacent schools such as Showell and Ocean City Elementary. While they subsequently tried to seek funding through a different program, they were advised Sept. 21 the project wasn’t eligible.

In the weeks since, school system leadership has met with county staff as well as the Eastern Shore Delegation—Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, Del. Wayne Hartman and Del. Charles Otto. The county commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to pause the project and to support the school system as board of education (BOE) officials work to appeal the state’s decision.

“The commissioners understand the concerns of parents and the community and remain committed to the BES project,” Commissioner President Chip Bertino said in a statement. “Before moving the project forward, however, it is incumbent upon the BOE to take the necessary steps to determine a path forward.”

The state typically provides a 50/50 match for school construction based on certain factors, including square footage, classroom sizes, number of students, site conditions, and overall square footage. Proposed plans for a new 102,968-gross-square-foot Buckingham Elementary exceed the state formula maximum of 65,218 square feet.

“The commissioners were unaware, even as plans moved forward, that no state funding was available,” Bertino said. “The loss of state matching funds places a significant burden on county taxpayers, who would shoulder one hundred percent of planning and construction costs if the county proceeded with the project as currently proposed.”

Commissioner Eric Fiori made it clear during Tuesday’s meeting that while he supported a new school, he was frustrated that the funding issue had not been shared earlier. He said the school system found out that the Interagency Committee on School Constriction (IAC) would not provide state funds for the project in February. In September, the school board approved the CIP with no discussion of the fact that Buckingham was not listed in it. He said he and other members of the school’s conceptual planning committee sat through five meetings under the assumption the project would be supported with $17 million in state funds.

“Unfortunately we discovered very late in the game that this money was no longer there,” Fiori said. “It’s upsetting to me as a commissioner … We were dedicated to build this school. And still are. But losing $17 million dollars in funding, we can’t just flip a switch and say ‘oh that money’s coming from here’ or ‘oh that money’s coming from there.’”

Superintendent Lou Taylor highlighted the project’s funding challenges in a school board meeting Tuesday afternoon.

“For many years, seeking funding from the state for school construction has been a huge struggle here in Worcester County,” he said. “Every time a new executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, known as IAC, is appointed, the interpretation of the regulations change.”

He said the same regulations that are in place now were in place when Showell was built in 2020 but that the state’s interpretation of those regulations had changed.

“It makes no sense,” he said. “It is unacceptable and ridiculous. We will continue to work with our state legislative delegation and commissioners to seek additional state funding. We must address the building needs of the Buckingham community. Our kids in the Berlin community deserve it.”

Robertson and another parent, Emily Vocke, both shared their frustrations with the aging building with the school board this week. Robertson told the board about the pre-k bathroom, made private not with a door but with a shower curtain, as well as the “village” of portable classrooms behind the school.

“Their permanence is identified by the rust growing from the bottom of the facia,” he said.

Vocke, who was a student at Buckingham 35 years ago, also painted a picture of the outgrown school her three children now attend.

“As nostalgic as it is walking my children through those same halls it is also disheartening to see the building hasn’t changed at all,” she said. “The library has been cut in half to make room for classroom space. My daughter eats lunch in her classroom so that the gym class can be held in the cafeteria. My son is in a trailer outside of the building and we are aware of why that’s unsafe. My first grader has trouble concentrating in his classroom as there are no walls or doors dividing the other four neighboring classrooms. The center of the pod, once used as a space for the grade to watch movies and have joint lessons, is now classroom space.”

Buckingham is the largest Title I school, a designation given to schools with high numbers of students from low-income families, in Worcester County.

“We have the greatest diversity in the northern end of the county. Is this why we’re being slighted?” Vocke said.

Carozza, who with Hartman and Otto sent a letter to Gov. Wes Moore Oct. 17 highlighting the Buckingham funding challenge, said she understands community frustration. She said the school construction process was complicated, even more so if there were different interpretations by different people.

“It’s not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game,” she said.

The delegation’s letter to Moore cites the history of Buckingham in Berlin and emphasizes the deficiencies of the 1978 building.

“It has five portable classrooms, four instructional spaces in its media center, and a bus parking area not designed for bus traffic, making for a growing safety concern at the school,” the letter reads. “Following the completion of construction of replacement schools for Ocean City Elementary School (2005) and Showell Elementary School (2020), it is now time to address the building and instructional space deficiencies identified in the January 2023 Buckingham Elementary Feasibility Study and to provide Buckingham students the school they deserve.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.