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Expansion of schools plan nipped

(Nov. 7,2014) The expectation of a smooth approval process came back to haunt the Worcester County Board of Education this week when they presented capital improvement proposals to a lame duck session of the Worcester County Commissioners.

Pocomoke Middle and Snow Hill Middle Schools might need new roofs by 2020, according to school officials, but an attempt to drop that item into the annual review with the commissioners, as a non-binding planning document, was met with heavy resistance.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson explained the move as “good stewardship,” and readily acknowledged an approval from the commission at this time might imply further acceptance down the road, even though the proposal was not intended as such.

Judy Boggs said the economy was exiting recession, and “the only department we’ve never cut is education.”

Boggs noted that the commissioners have postponed road construction and cut departments’ budgets by 10 percent “multiple times” in some cases. She offered that the spring budget cycle was the appropriate time to outline new projects.

“Everyone still wants to flush their toilets. We never laid off teachers or cut benefits,” Boggs said.

Wilson said the timeframes involved were deliberately extended to leave plenty of leeway in the budgeting process for the challenges faced in subsequent cycles.

Chief Administrator Harold Higgins defended the move, and said the Department of Education was acting based on an imperative they felt to give as much advance warning as possible.

The schools said by the time the actual project becomes necessary, all the major school construction projects currently underway – Snow Hill High School, the replacement of Showell Elementary, and others – will have long been finished, and the Board of Education will have shifted their priorities toward a maintenance rather than a construction footing.

“I’d rather know now than 6 months or a year before,” Commission President Bud Church observed.

“What if the roof starts leaking on a floor we’re replacing?” Boggs asked.

A motion to accept the schools’ proposal in its entirety failed to pass. Virgil Shockley abstained from voting because “I am not going to be here and I don’t want to put anyone else in debt.”

A second motion, accepting the schools’ proposal but eliminating the roofing projects, passed unanimously. School Facilities Planner Joseph Price said the move would not affect the schools’ Capital Improvement Plan “at all.”

“Whether the middle school roofs are in the CIP or not,” Price said, “the reality is that the roofs are showing signs that they will need replacing and we are executing due diligence in identifying these future projects to the Board of Education, the State Public School Construction Program and the County Commissioners in the current CIP.”

The schools were also prepared to discuss $660,000 for the design phase of replacement plans for Showell Elementary School. However, the commissioners noted that a formal request for the funding, usually in the form of a letter, had not been included with the request and so could not be heard.

“Since our initial funding request in August for the design phase of Showell Elementary,” Wilson said, “we have had several meetings with the county executive, pertaining to the rescheduling of our request for the design phase of the new school.

“There was no indication that a letter was needed when the funding request would be revisited by [the] commissioners or it would have been easily furnished. This unfortunate situation affects the students, teachers, parents and community of Showell Elementary School.”

The board invited the Department of Education back to their next regularly scheduled meeting in two weeks, but the schools had already taken action in anticipation of the approval.

“As a result of our meetings with county representation, we believed there would not be an issue with the funding request or with funding approval for the design phase,” said Wilson. “To avoid unnecessary delays, we scheduled the first community input meeting on November 12.”

“This meeting must be cancelled; moving forward requires funding approval from County Commissioners.”

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