County to proceed with Bennett Middle demolition

Bennett Field

In the end, the the process was too far along to be changed.

The Wicomico County Council voted 6-1 this week to proceed with the demolition of Bennett Middle School, keeping the project on track and ensuring plans for multiple athletic fields to serve James M. Bennett High School students will be built.

County Executive Bob Culver had asked council members to grant him 60 days to publicly examine plans to demolish Bennett Middle School.

“If the building is beyond repair, I’ll be the first one to send the wrecking ball in,” he said.

But Councilman Larry Dodd said the plan is 90 percent complete and questioned the wisdom of halting it now.

“It’s true the plan has been in the works 10 years but Wicomico County doesn’t have the money we had 10 years ago. We have lost jobs. We lost income tax. I want the athletic fields to go through very much,” Culver said.

“I think the Board of Education had this well-thought-out but, doggone it, so many things changed and that’s our economy. I can’t afford to build the board of education a new office facility, so let’s make do with what we’ve got,” Culver said.

Councilman Ernest Davis said delay would “sent a bad message.”

“Now, after 10 years, you want to delay it. The money is already appropriated  to tear down the building, so  where your savings?” he asked.

“Have you not been following this?”  Culver shot back, saying the process would have be started  again.

“What is the use of the building afterward? You’re saying tearing it down if more profitable? That’s just not right,” Culver said.

Disagreeing, Davis said Culver appeared to be saying, “so with every project you say we need to stop here and do something else?”

“The money is there to tear the build down. What changed?” Davis said.

“Where is the money going to come from to rebuild it?” Culver asked, then said, “Look, it’s your vote.”

“You do what you want to. I have tried to save money. You live with that vote and I’ll live with trying to save the county some money,” he said.

Councilman Joe Holloway said the average person, “with no skin in the game,” would shake his head in disagreement at razing the school.

“It seems to be the mindset to tear everything down and build  everything new. A lot of jurisdictions don’t do that. They remodel what they have. We’ve had Wi Middle sitting over there for a long time,” Holloway said, adding schools we meant to last longer than 50 years.

A fifty-year lifespan is for pole barns, not schools, if they are maintained, he said.

Councilman Marc Kilmer said council members received the proposal for the school one and one-half months late.

“And  now, this you brought to use without any plan. You’ve had since December to study it and now you want another 60 days and that is going to delay the CIP. We don’t have any  idea of the legal problems if we delay this … you’re asking us to go on faith here. You know I like you, Bob, but this is a little too much to swallow. We have no knowledge to go on. We have two paragraphs from you and a CIP and that’s all you’ve given us for the whole thing,” Kilmer said.

Culver told him he appreciated the honesty, but again focused on saving money.

“You have to look into that camera and answer to all those voters, all those voters who are trying to save money for Wicomico County … there have been a lot of things coming across this desk. This a learning curve and I’m learning as fast as I can,” Culver said.

“I’m comfortable answering to those voters,” Kilmer replied.

Culver said he asked Kilmer to visit the school with him, but Kilmer said if a quorum met to make the visit, it would violate so-called sunshine laws that allows media to be informed.

“Take that up with The Daily Times, not me,” Culver said. The newspaper has filed a complaint that the site visit was a violation of Open Meetings Law.

Kilmer said council members could have visited it individually, without having a quorum.

Councilman John Hall called asking for an additional 60 days “unacceptable.”

“The economy has not changed pretty much since this project was projected. It hasn’t gotten any better, it hasn’t gotten any worse. It’s pretty much the same,” he said.

Matt Holloway spoke against stopping and revisiting projects.

Council President John Cannon agreed it’s important to be fiscally conservative, but said delaying would force county officials into unknown territory and could jeopardize state funding.

He said it is unknown how much it would cost to renovate the school and prepare it for board of education administrative offices. “Nobody has put before us what we will do with the board of education offices on Long Avenue. It could cost $2 million just to tear that building down, but do we want to?” Cannon asked.

“I know there are good intentions, but 60 days is not enough to figure this out. The project is ready to go, and I think we should continue,” he said.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg disagreed that the economy hasn’t changed, and agreed with Culver that the county’s needs are also different.

He complained about what he characterized as “a disposable society” and said giving Culver an additional 60 days could result in discovering the building has inherent value.

Councilman John Hall asked Strausburg why he wasn’t having that discussion with board of education members instead of the county council.

 “I don’t make decisions with the board of education. I lend my expertise … I try to carry out whatever instructions from elected leadership are,” Strausburg replied.

On Monday, Culver took his case to James M. Bennett High School advanced-placement government students and athletes, Culver said he remains committed to finding a way to convert at least a portion of the old Bennett Middle to offices for the Board of Education.

School board plans, in place since 2005, called for the 1966 classroom buildings to be demolished to make room for new athletic fields at the College Avenue complex.

“This plan was done in 2004-2005,” said Culver, “and it is probably something the county should never have done at the time — build two schools (Bennett middle and high) — because we can’t afford it.

“There’s been a lot that’s changed since 2005,” he said. “Since 2005, we have lost roughly $42 million from the state of Maryland.”

Culver suggested that a lot of what he was proposing had been exaggerated in a negative way.

“I want our schools to be as advanced as any schools in the state of Maryland,” he told the students. “I just don’t believe bricks and stones and glass and brass is what makes a school. You all do that through your school spirit, you do that through what you learn … I would rather see us put money in technology instead of these bricks and stones.”

Culver asked for a show of hands from students “who have been told I was going to take the ballfields away.” About 15 hands in a crowd of about 150 were raised, to which Culver responded: “That’s better than I thought.”

Culver repeatedly emphasized that saving money for taxpayers was his primary objective.

“I want to build the athletic fields just as they were proposed. I have no problem with that.” he said.

“My part, what I want to do, is to move them over to the spare land, the practice fields, the 8 acres. We can do this and save money.”

Several times during the morning’s meeting, Culver pointed to rudimentary blueprints of the existing plan and a newly drawn up version that outlined what Culver is proposing.

“Give me 60 days to at least look to see if this building can be repurposed for anything else,” he said. “If (my plan) doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to run the wrecking ball through (Bennett Middle). But we won’t know that until we get the chance to try (to make the plan work).”

Student Kiernan Murphy asked Culver what his new 60-day study would cost.

Culver replied: “Probably less than a thousand dollars, to get people in there who know what they’re doing and see if those walls will hold what we want to do.”

Murphy, a Bennett senior, said he had reviewed the previous studies, and they seemed to conclusively determine that repurposing wasn’t an option.

Culver responded that original studies had considered whether the old Bennett Middle had potential use as classrooms, but had not examined whether it would be suitable for office or storage space.

Culver also commended Murphy, saying the student was “the only one who ever called me to ask me what my real plans were,” as media reports and social networking sites have sometimes contained conflicting information.

The forum took place in the high school cafeteria. Culver thanked the many students who, he said, had submitted a letter or shared an email.

Culver said the public was confused about several things contained in both plans. He cautioned, for example, that the football “stadium” often mentioned for the property “was never a stadium — no lights, but has irrigation, just a football field, and bleachers to hold 400 people on each side.”

Bennett Athletic Director and Varsity Football Coach Glenn “Hoot” Gibson engaged in an impromptu discussion with the executive in which the two men hovered over the competing blueprints and Culver explained his vision for the property.

Gibson emerged from the encounter and announced that, in his view, two planned practice fields would be jeopardized under Culver’s plan. That prompted discussion on whether those practice areas could be placed elsewhere.

Several students told Culver that they now have share practice fields, which damages the fields and as negative effects on students’ after-school schedules and access to facilities.

AP Government teacher Phil Portier, who invited Culver to address the students, said the meeting was geared toward “increasing students’ political advocacy and letting our students know that their voice matters.”

Culver said after Monday’s session that he appreciated the encounter

“I enjoyed my meeting with the students and staff this morning, it was nice to have face to face with them and see the many different opinions that they had,” he said.

“I would love to do that a couple of times a year to keep my finger on the pulse of what the next generation is thinking.”

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