Bob Culver: Put more thought into old Bennett Middle options

Bennett School complex - aerial red

Thank you for providing this opportunity for me to respond to Mike Dunn’s recent opinion article — “We deserve a Bennett that’s completed right.”

Let me be clear right from the beginning: Mr. Dunn is not correct in stating that I put forth a proposal that said “don’t build the track/football complex.”

Culver MugWhat I am proposing is that those fields be built on another piece of land within the school complex.

He is correct in stating that I don’t believe Bennett Middle School should be torn down and that the building should be repurposed.

With regard to the athletic fields, the original plan was to build them on the site of the torn down school.  Following this plan, the Board of Education believes the approximately 8-acre parcel land that is on the corner of College Avenue and South Division Street (across from old Dresser property and currently used as practice fields) would be surplus and no longer needed by the school, so it would be sold. Funds from the sale would be returned to the county.

What I am proposing is that the Board of Education, which owns the property, NOT sell it — particularly in what everyone agrees is a depressed real estate market.

The taxpayers would not receive top-dollar for the property, so is that option truly in the best interest of our citizens?

My recommendation is to use the practice fields on that corner and build the new athletic fields there. It is almost identical in size to the site proposed by the Board of Education.

To Mr. Dunn’s point, the money is already in place. Following my suggestion, construction could hopefully begin this summer well ahead of the 2017 timeline, which requires the demolition of Bennett Middle.

The second piece of this is the repurposing of the “old’ Bennett Middle. Again, is tearing down Bennett Middle in the best interest of the taxpayers?

I believe we are too quick to declare brick and mortar buildings “unusable” and therefore all that can be done is demolition.

My proposal would be for the Board of Education to initiate the process (through the state) to declare the school “surplus.” If the state agrees, the property would then be offered to the county.

My recommendation would be for the county to accept the surplus Bennett Middle and repurpose it for county offices, as well as for Board of Education offices. The portables could be removed and there is plenty of parking.

If the board decided to keep the school, it could only be used for educational purposes and could not be commingled with other business operations, including county government.

Why do I believe saving Bennett is the best use of the building?  Wicomico County currently leases space for various offices and agencies. Examples include the Board of Elections, the Board of Liquor Licensing, Local Management Board and the Health Department (Dental Clinic).

The Board of Education also wants new offices. In addition, the county has a real need for more storage space.

Instead of renting space and paying landlords, the smart and fiscally responsible move, in my opinion, would be to stop paying rent and house our county offices within county buildings.

By remodeling and updating the old Bennett Middle, the county would be investing in itself.

Mr. Dunn states, “elections have consequences” – yes they do. The citizens voted for change in November, which included more prudent use of their tax dollars and wiser spending.

It is my job as County Executive to find a balance between current obligations, future obligations and what this county can truly afford.

Moving athletic fields from one location to another is hardly a loss to the supporters of the Board of Education. The sky is not falling — it is simply a relocation.

As far as the “timing is simply wrong” for the repurposing of Bennett, how does that impact the “Bennett Re-birth,” if the new fields are still being built?

The only thing that the BOE and its supporters would not be getting (if my plan is adopted) is the tearing down of Bennett Middle. Is having Bennett Middle remain in place, declared surplus and remodeled as county offices so offensive to them that it is unacceptable?

Surely, as educators, they can see the wisdom of working collaboratively to meet everyone’s needs.

Mr. Dunn calls the completed Bennett schools “shining examples of what we deserve,” stating later “it is the right thing to do” and “we deserve it.” The fact is both schools are being completed, so what is really the problem?

I have simply offered an option as to where the athletic fields should be built and a recommendation that repurposing Bennett Middle would be the better choice over tearing it down.

As the County Executive elected by the people, I firmly believe my plan is in the best interest of the taxpayers.

Please consider portions of Mr. Dunn’s comments: “what we deserve,” Wicomico County being a “beacon of progressive thinking” and having a “can-do” attitude.”

What we “deserve” and what we can afford may be two different things. We may all want a Mercedes or Cadillac, but it may be we can only afford a well-equipped Chevy or Ford.

“Progressive thinking”? I think opting to remodel/repurpose schools, maintaining what we have and trying to live within our means is pretty progressive thinking given the state of our county finances and the tax burden already hurting our citizens. It also lives up to a “can do” attitude, in my view.

Everyone has a right to their opinion. Based on our election of not quite four months ago, I venture to say that a majority of Wicomico County citizens would agree with me.

There have been emotional appeals by Mr. Dunn through his “One Salisbury” website and the article in the Salisbury Independent; by Steve Grudis, principal of James M. Bennett High School in a “clipboard call” to parents, guardians and teachers; by Dustin Mills, who started a Facebook page “Save Phase 3”; and comments by others on social media.

All of these have served to incite emotions for no valid reason.

The most sensible conversation that I have had on the subject is with a Bennett High student.  He actually picked up the phone and called me to discuss the issue. He then wrote a comment about our conversation on the “Save Phase 3” Facebook page, which has been largely ignored.

In summary, Bennett’s track/football complex will not only be built, it has the potential to be built ahead of schedule if my recommendation is accepted.

Bob Culver is the Wicomico County Executive.

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