Wicomico keeps West Salisbury in funding que



FIN Ltr to Governor Hogan – West Salisbury Elementary School – Replacement of Public School Facilities 2-25-15

Concerned about the condition of West Salisbury Elementary School, members of The Watchmen Ministerial Alliance called on county leaders to fund a new structure.

“It is not acceptable  for our children,” the Rev. Lewis Watson, pastor of First Baptist Church, representing the alliance, told the Wicomico County Council during the Public Comments portion of its meeting Tuesday. About a dozen supporters also attended.

The Wicomico County Council voted Tuesday to place $2.1 million toward replacing the school. Plans to replace the school had been affected by County Executive Bob Culver’s reluctance to commit the money for a new building.

“We want a new school. We deserve a new school … I don’t feel any one of you would have any one of your children, or your grandchildren or your relatives, to learn in these conditions. We visited that school and we saw children learning in closets,” he said.

“There is no amount of money that you can save that warrants our children to have to learn under the conditions that they are learning under,” Watson said.

When he and fellow pastors visited the school Monday this week, they found that a single room serves as the cafeteria, gym and auditorium. The music room is in the center of the school, Watson said.

“When music is being played, classrooms and people trying to learn, are interrupted,” he said.

He also objected to portable classrooms that force children outdoors to classes and to the library in inclement weather and extreme heat. He said he has seen children leave school drenched with perspiration.

“It is an affront to our community and to our citizens and our  children,” he said.

Youngsters could be in danger when they walk to and from their parents’ cars, he said, because they have to maneuver in front of buses, due to the configuration of lanes.

“Provisions have been made for North Salisbury, Bennett High, Bennett Middle, and we don’t see why we can’t find monies to rebuild West Salisbury Elementary. Take into consideration what those children have to go through. We’re asking you, would do that? And if you do that, we certainly would appreciate that,” Watson said.

West Salisbury Elementary is more than 50 years old and doesn’t have proper lighting, he said.

He complained everything in the school is outdated.

“We’re in the 21st Century and we deserve a school that represents 21st Century children. We want them to learn and they cannot learn properly under those conditions,” he said.

Schools Superintendent John Fredericksen told council members he is looking forward to working with them on West Salisbury Elementary “to see that it’s successful.”

Mary Ashanti, president of the Wicomico County NAACP, said she is thankful for The Watchmen. She asked why money would be spent to renovate the county stadium when new schools are needed.

Culver and his administration announced two weeks ago that they were back onboard with the school being considered by the state for construction funding.

The decision came about the same time that state officials were reacting to the news that the county might be pulling its support.

The engineering arm of the independent state panel that rules on construction spending for Maryland’s public schools has reaffirmed to Gov. Larry Hogan that West Salisbury Elementary School is in need of total replacement.

In a letter dated Feb. 25, David G. Lever, executive director of the state’s School Construction Program, took issue with suggestions that Wicomico County had failed to properly maintain the West Road building and that renovations were a less-costly solution to environmental conditions there.

Culver had briefly delayed the plan to rebuild the school, but — facing immense public pressure — agreed to release $2.1 million in funding to keep the school in line for state construction support.

Culver had also appointed a local advisory team to examine the options; the group said in a report to the county executive that renovations could be performed to greatly improve conditions in the 50-year-old building.

Culver, in turn, reported this information to Hogan, who has said he will be especially diligent in approving school construction projects.

“Having studied the floor plan of the West Salisbury Elementary School, visited the building and site, and discussed the situation with school board officials,” Lever told the governor, “I conclude that neither an upgrade of selected building systems nor the renovation with additions option as presented in the feasibility study will adequately address the very visible and significant deficiencies of this facility.”

His six-page letter was copied to Dr. Lillian M. Lowery, who chairs the Interagency Committee on School Construction, known in government circles as the IAC. That group typically has the final say on school construction and renovation projects; it weighs statewide needs and seeks to remove political pressure from such spending decisions.

The West Salisbury Elementary situation was part of a discussion that occurred at the state’s Board of Public Works meeting Jan. 28. The board, comprised of the governor, state comptroller and state treasurer, discussed whether a lack of proper maintenance was to blame for a need to replace certain schools.

Culver, in making the case for a renovation of WSE, rather than replacement, had suggested that better maintenance would have headed off some issues, including problems with heating, air conditioning and windows.

Lever was obviously bothered by those assertions.

“We have been copied on a letter addressed to you by County Executive Bob Culver of Wicomico County regarding the proposed replacement of the West Salisbury Elementary School,” Lever began.

“While the Public School Construction Program appreciates every effort made by public officials to reduce the cost of school construction, we would also like to comment on Mr. Culver’s statement that boards of education should ‘maintain existing schools rather than always opt first for new construction.’

“At the Board of Public Works meeting on January 28, 2015, there was discussion about the possibility that schools are being replaced prematurely due to a lack of maintenance. Among the many reasons that may justify the replacement of a facility vs. its renovation, the staff of the lAC has not found that a lack of maintenance on the part of a (local school system) is a factor.”

Lever went on to provide the governor with details that seemed to demonstrate that all necessary feasibility studies had been performed on the WSE project and the replacement decision was made within state law and procedures.

Lever said: “On March 22, 2012, the Wicomico County Board of Education sent the lAC a feasibility study on the West Salisbury Elementary School that included two renovation and two replacement options. After thorough evaluation of this feasibility study, the Designees to the lAC concluded that replacement was justified because of the condition of the existing building and in order to support the educational program.”

In the letter, Lever also points to security concerns, safety issues, ceiling height, traffic flow and educational mission needs that, he said, cannot be addressed through a renovation. Lever also makes the case — as have many parents and teachers — that the facility needs a greatly improved media center, which is currently located in a portable building unit.

“From a number of perspectives, the existing facility does not offer its students a learning environment that is at all comparable to those of new schools or schools that have received full renovations,” Lever said.

“These deficiencies limit the educational opportunities available to this student body as compared to those available to their peers. The fact that the student population at this school currently has the third-highest percentage of Free and Reduced Price Meal students in the school system, and also appears to have a high percentage of students for whom English is not the language spoken at home, compounds the disadvantages faced by these students.”

Lever concluded: “I would only add that Wicomico County Public Schools has developed a capital program that addresses building system replacements in a number of schools across the jurisdiction in a logically sequential, well-planned manner; in fact, we hold WCPS up as a model of  how a school system can approach its large backlog of deferred maintenance within an environment of highly constrained finances.

“This approach, unfortunately,  does not work for all facilities, and I believe that West Salisbury Elementary School is one in which a more extensive capital investment is needed.”

Lever’s letter was copied to a who’s-who of state government officials, including Nancy K. Kopp, Peter Franchot.

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