Culver places West Salisbury back in line for replacement or renovation

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A replacement school for West Salisbury Elementary, thought to be a casualty of the leadership changes brought by the November elections, is back in line for possible construction.

After reviewing the issue, County Executive Bob Culver said he will use $2.1 million from the county’s reserve fund to make the project a contender for state assistance funding. The decision, announced last week, immediately cooled off a hot issue that had surprised many people who thought a new school was in the offing.

Sharon Morris, the county’s assistant director of administration, told council members at a heavily attended council session that Culver had involved himself in a thorough exercise to correctly determine what the right decision should be.

“The county executive heard the community,” Morris said. “He engaged a group of professionals. He instructed his staff to do the necessary research and he is prepared to request that the County Council accept his plan to appropriated the $2.1 million  for the West Salisbury Elementary project.”

She reminded the public that Culver had first delayed action on the school because he wanted to be comfortable that all of the best options had been explored.

“He removed the $2 million (from bonding consideration) because it would solidify the county’s acceptance of a greater debt that he had not had an opportunity to review,” she said.

“He listened as the families, students and public expressed their disappointment. He engaged a group of volunteer professionals, who did an assessment of the school, (who said) that renovation would extend the life of the school.

Depending on what plan is ultimately decided, the school could cost a total of between $24.4 million and $38.8 million.

The Culver panel’s report, released in late January, recommended that West Salisbury Elementary School be remodeled and added onto, rather than torn down and replaced.

The report assembled recommendations prepared by Fisher Architecture, Gillis-Gilkerson Builders, John Palmer Jr. and Johnnie Miller of Electrical Solutions and Peninsula Roofing Inc.

Morris, however, made clear that the $2.1 million commitment signals that more than mere repairs will occur, and the building is now headed toward replacement or major renovation. “This goes well beyond the issue with air conditioning,” she said.

Morris said her review of the records dating back to 1999 shows that WSE — as part of the school board’s 15-year planning for aged school — was properly planned in accordance with state guidelines.

“But planning money was never placed in the budget,” she said. “The latest stage was to appropriate $2 million, with the hope of receiving a state match of $5 million.” She said the seed money was needed as “a catapult for state funding.”

Brian Foret, the school board’s facilities director, said the $2.1 million was a most-welcome decision.

“This is not unusual in the way that funding has proceeded for schools in the past,” he told the council. “It is not uncommon for us to get money in chunks through various fiscal years, both from the state and the county, for us to be able to accumulate enough funding authorization for us to proceed on a project.”

In alluding to the controversy, Foret said: “What’s a little unusual in this case is that we’re all not in agreement yet on what that might be, but it sounds like this train is getting back on the track. Appointing $2 million to a project sounds like we’re getting it together again, and we’ll be able to put things together with the state.”

John Palmer of Delmar, who was among the participants in Culver’s task force that reviewed the school, said he believed the county would be making a mistake to tear down the West Road school and build a new one.

“In the last election, people voted overwhelmingly voted  for change in Wicomico County, to change the way we do business in all areas of our government — and that includes the Board of Education,” Palmer said.

“These people are willing to give Mr. Culver a chance to prove what he can do. Yet tonight, as I stand up here, and listed to a majority of people here, what I hear is ‘business as usual.’”

He added: “The taxpayers will not stand for business as usual. That does not mean we won’t move ahead,  but we are not going to stand for business as usual.”

Built in 1964, some improvements and additions have been completed throughout the history of the building, including a water/storage building, a parking lot  and an interior renovation.

Because of crowding based on school districting, WSE’s teachers have to use five portable classrooms now on the site.

Contact Greg Bassett at gbasssett@newszap.com.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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