Culver’s input on Bennett sports fields sparks reaction

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County Executive Bob Culver released his five-year Capital Projects list last week, sending various groups scrambling to confront alterations in what had been planned under the previous County Council and county administration.

The item that drew the largest response was Culver’s suggestion that the next phase of the Bennett Middle School transition, years in development, be drastically reconsidered.

The plan has been for demolition of the 1960s-era classroom buildings on East College Avenue, and their replacement with athletic fields and a sports complex. School officials had also proposed selling a strip along South Division Street for private commercial use..

Culver’s suggestion, which would require council approval to enact, would be to convert the old middle school building into office space long requested by the Board of Education.

The exact language in Culver’s presentation:

“The County Executive recommends reconsideration of the plan to demolish the existing Bennett Middle School and wishes to explore repurposing the structure to house, among other things, the BOE Administrative Complex. No new borrowing is required in fiscal year 2016 or beyond to complete the combined JBM/BMS projects.

“However, from a charter compliance and budget authorization perspective, there remains a requirement for the Executive to introduce and Council to approve a resolution and/or legislation authorizing the use of $1,417,032 of bond funds initially sold for the purpose of constructing JMB for the completion of BMS.”

Parental concerns peaked as the school week started Monday, with news spreading across the community because of a surprise source: the James M. Bennett High School principal.

Veteran Principal Steve Grudis, in his recorded weekly “clipboard call” to parents and students which is dialed out on Sunday nights, reported this message:

“Good Evening JMB parents, guardians and teachers. Earlier in the week, the County Capital Improvement Program for fiscal years 2016-2020 was submitted to the Wicomico County Council.

“According to this document, the No. 1 priority remains the continued funding of Bennett Middle School new construction and the final phase of James M. Bennett High School. The recommendation made to the County Council is, ‘reconsideration of a plan to demolish the existing Bennett Middle School and wishes to explore re-purposing the structure to house, among other things, the Board of Education Administrative Complex.’

“If this were to be approved, no track or athletic fields would be able to be constructed since Phase III of the James M. Bennett High School project called for the athletic site to be located on the demolition site of Bennett Middle School.”

Grudis concluded the recorded call to parents with a call to action:

“Please, take time to contact the County Executive and County Council to ask more questions concerning the recommendation and to voice your support of the JMB Phase III project. Demolition of the middle school and construction of our needed track and athletic fields is needed. The County Council office is 410-548-4696. Thank you.”

Converting old and surplus school buildings into offices has been part of the school board’s planning, but Bennett Middle was never part of that planning.

In a statement released late Monday, schools Superintendent Dr. John Fredericksen said:

“The idea of repurposing an old school as offices is one the school system has had as well, with backing from the broad-based Facilities Task Force. The repurposing concept was included in the recommendations in the Facilities Task Force Report that the school system shared with the community last fall.

“That report recommended looking at East Salisbury Elementary as a school that could be repurposed for offices for the Board of Education. East Salisbury Elementary stands alone and the recommendation was to turn it into offices only after a number of steps had occurred to relocate its student population to other buildings. Repurposing a facility like East Salisbury would not have an adverse impact on other schools and students.”

Fredericksen also reminded the community about last fall’s discussion that Wicomico Middle School be used as a “staging school” to house students whose schools were being rebuilt or remodeled according to school board timetables.

“Just recently,” Fredericksen said, “in expectation of another challenging budget year, we have discussed the possibility of Wicomico Middle being turned into offices. While it is a difficult and expensive building to continue operating as a school, it could potentially serve another purpose as offices. It is one of the many possibilities we are exploring.”

As envisioned under the previous county leadership, the Bennett Middle project was broken into three parts: Phase I was the construction of a replacement high school on the site, and the demolition of the old high school; Phase II was building a replacement Bennett Middle in Fruitland (which is approaching completion); Phase III was redevelopment cleared Bennett Middle property to serve the high school.

Said Fredericksen: “Phase III will restore to the high school the outdoor facilities that it had prior to the start of the whole Bennett project. Game and practice fields for instruction and after-school athletic activities will be located on the land that right now houses the existing Bennett Middle School.

“These facilities include a field suitable for JV football, soccer and lacrosse, as well as an 8-lane track around the field. Right now Wicomico only has a 6-lane track, and because of the smaller number of lanes it does not host regional and invitational track events. Having an 8-lane track would serve all four Wicomico schools as well as schools throughout the Bayside Conference and even other states. Hosting regional and invitational track meets would bring revenue to Wicomico County.”

Despite Principal Grudis’ pronouncement, school board officials and administrators seem to be keeping calm about Culver’s suggestion. Fredericksen used the controversy to remind the community that education officials are sticking to their big blueprint.

“Every school project, including the Bennett project, goes through careful planning and evaluation before getting the go ahead from the County’s School Building Commission, the Board of Education, the county, and the state,” the superintendent said.

“The light turned green on this project almost a decade ago, and we are getting very close to completing a project that will serve the students and families of James M. Bennett High School and the community for many years to come. Now is not the time to turn the light to red and leave this project unfinished.”

Within the recent county-wide election, rifts created by the Bennett project were seen more clearly than ever before. The first controversy was the cost of replacing the high school, which was followed by tensions over where to middle a new middle school, followed by controversy over the chosen Fruitland location, and now the replacement plans for sports fields and athletic areas.

Some simmering tension between school officials and Culver have already been revealed in the executive’s decision to postpone a financing request for a replacement facility for West Salisbury Elementary School.

Culver appointed a task force, comprised of construction experts, citizens and others, to recommend whether to proceed with replacing the school, making some cosmetic improvements or planning additions and renovations.

The exercise has since been hampered by questions about how the architectural, electrical and engineering advisers were selected, whether their involvement compromises either conflict-of-interest rules, bidding and purchasing procedures, even whether the council touring of the facility during a weekend in January somehow violated Open Meetings measures.

The County Council is expected to discuss the West Salisbury Elementary issue at length at its Tuesday session.

Contact Greg Bassett at gbassett@newszap.com.

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

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