Local Officials Appeal BES Funding Decision

BERLIN – Local officials asked the state to reconsider a funding request for the replacement of Buckingham Elementary School during a hearing last week.

Superintendent Lou Taylor, Worcester County Commissioner President Chip Bertino and Sen. Mary Beth Carozza met with the Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC) virtually last Thursday to make the case for Buckingham Elementary School. The state advised Worcester County Public Schools earlier this year the project would not be getting state funding because of space at adjacent schools.

“The board of education and my staff and I are eager to work with the IAC team as always to develop a pathway for state funding for the critically needed project,” Taylor said.

In early December, the IAC provided a “C” funding status for the Buckingham replacement project. The status means the project isn’t eligible for funding pending IAC review or unresolved issues. Local officials asked them to appeal that decision during the Dec. 14 IAC meeting.

“Buckingham Elementary is now a 45-year-old facility which has never had a major renovation or addition,” Taylor said. “Buckingham is also one of only two Worcester County schools which utilizes portable classrooms for instruction. Although the facility is in need of a replacement as evident by our January 2023 feasibility study, as with every major project we undertake this project is about the students. Buckingham is our largest Title One school in Worcester County, it has a 42% minority student population and 60% of the students are eligible at Buckingham for free and reduced meals.”

Bertino told the committee the county had allocated $50 million for construction of a new Buckingham but that the project also needed state funding.

“Buckingham Elementary School is at the heart of our community, having enriched the lives of thousands of students during its many decades of service,” he said. “The time has come though to reinvigorate this facility, reimagining its potential for our 21st century students and we need your help.”

He said that during the past 10 years Worcester County received just .37%,  or $14.8 million, of the $4 billion in state school construction funds dispersed statewide.

“Approving this $5.8 million request for Buckingham Elementary School would increase this percentage to only one half of one percent. A small investment for the state that will reap incalculable dividends for the families of our community and the state as a whole.”

Bertino added that Worcester County taxpayers funded nearly 80% of local school construction costs.

“Unlike other counties, Worcester County requests school funding once every three to four years and this is one of those years,” he said. “Our community is deeply committed, highly invested and increasingly motivated to building and maintaining a new quality Buckingham Elementary School. Please reconsider your decision to enable Buckingham Elementary, a Maryland four star school, to build on its legacy of exceptional learning.”

Carozza said the Worcester County request for funding was based on facts, figures and fairness.

“The Buckingham community has patiently been waiting for nearly 20 years while a new Ocean City Elementary School was built in 2005 and a new Showell Elementary was completed in 2020,” she said. “You can imagine the alarm of the Buckingham Elementary community and all of Worcester when we learned earlier this fall that the IAC, using a new interpretation of adjacent schools, determined that Buckingham replacement school to be ineligible for state school construction funding. Worcester County officials were surprised since the new definition was not enforced when Worcester  completed the new Showell Elementary School in 2020.”

She added that one of the issues mentioned by IAC staff during recent discussions was combining Buckingham Elementary and Berlin Intermediate School into one facility.

“We see this as unworkable for several reasons,” she said. “It would be a much larger school construction project, with site size constrictions at both Buckingham and Berlin Intermediate. This could result in the county trying to find a 25- to-30-acre site in northern Worcester County causing more complications and delays for our Buckingham students.”

At the request of IAC members, IAC Executive Director Alex Donahue provided an overview of the Buckingham funding situation.

“Under the IAC’s longstanding process for counting available capacity in a project and adjacent schools, the Buckingham replacement project as currently proposed has been found to be not eligible for state funding participation,” he said.

According to Donahue, when state funding is requested officails look at elgibile enrollment for the school in question as well as the capacity of adjacent schools.

“I would note that the rules under which this analysis is conducted have not changed significantly in many years,” he said. “What is different between this year as compared with past years in which previous projects were evaluated is that the IAC now has the capacity to fully implement these rules to a degree which they may not have consistently been implemented in previous years. Nevertheless IAC staff are looking forward to working through the next couple of months with Worcester County Public Schools and Worcester County to identify how the state may support improvements in WCPS portfolio including Buckingham Elementary. We’re looking forward to this continued dialogue and appreciate very much the good efforts and time and investment made by all the presenters today from Worcester County as well as staff and look forward to more discussion on this topic in coming weeks.”

IAC Chair Edward Kasemeyer acknowledged Carozza’s concern about a combination of Buckingham and Berlin Intermeidate.

“I think Alex has a more comprehensive concept that hopefully might work for them,” he said. “He’s going to be in contact with them in the near future to try to work that out.”

IAC member Atif Chaudhry asked that the committee be kept informed throughout the process.

“After Alex’s conversations with Worcester County it may be helpful just to provide us with some updates on next steps so we can have those as background, given the concerns with the community,” he said. “I personally would love to learn more information about what options are available.”

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.