Desired Mardela school renovation delay is expected

Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver’s plan to put on hold the rebuilding and renovation at Mardela Middle & High School is expected to be met with objections Tuesday night at a public hearing on the capital budget.

“It’s been held back for many years. Even when I was there – and I graduated nearly 20 years ago — they worked out of many portable classrooms and creatively used classroom space,” Wicomico County Councilman Josh Hastings said about staff members at the school.

Hastings is among those who don’t want the project delayed.

Members of the General Assembly had a school construction bill that didn’t advance during this year’s legislative session but there was another bill to try to obtain extra funding for all school construction, Hastings said.

“The House is meeting to pick a new speaker, so there will be a special session,” he said, adding his understanding is officials will try to make the school construction bill part of that special session, offering hope there will be money for Mardela improvements.

“I think next year that will be a bigger issue for the General Assembly. As far as Mardela goes, my brother teaches there. I went there. I’m a proud graduate. I understand how the County Executive’s office is trying to hold off, but I think there are other funds we can possibly find to keep this project on track.

“I have every intention of making that happen. As a councilman, I can take away from the budget and re-appropriate, but I can’t add anything to it,” he said.

Weston Young, the county’s Assistant Director of Administration, said county officials fully acknowledge the importance of the Mardela school project, “but we decided to put a pause on it because we haven’t done anything yet,” he said.

“We don’t want to start it then have to stop,” he said.

Young publicly briefed Hastings and his colleagues on the matter at their April 16 meeting.

Also, the county is facing major funding requirements during the next few years.

“We are not saying Mardela doesn’t need to be looked at. What we’re saying is, when we look at the impact of a $15 minimum wage, while that is staggered over several years, it will cost the county $7 million annually.

“Mardela is over several years. If we committed to the new school, or the new partial school, we question if we would have those millions of dollars available,” Young said.

Another expense will be additional funding in the millions of dollars for schools under the Kirwin Commission.

The Board of Education is asking for $750,000 for a planning a design study for the Mardela school in FY20.

“The Board of Education gave us three projects. Continuing funding for the new Beaver Run Elementary School construction is their first priority.

“Their second priority would be Mardela, and that would mean committing ourselves for five years and several million dollars

“Their third priority is Westside Intermediate School. It needs systemic renovations and the roof is leaking there,” Young said.

“If you couple that with the $15 minimum wage, then every source we’re talking to says there’s a recession coming next year. We really cannot commit to another school. Our thought is we need to ‘press pause’ and we need to see how the Kirwin Commission ends up,” he said.

“Where are we are finding that first additional $2 million for the Kirwin Commission, then where are we finding the $2 million on top of that next year, then we are finding that $2 million on top of that the next year, practically in perpetuity? Where are we finding that extra money? We don’t know,” Young said.

For FY20, the school board is asking the county for $700,000 for Mardela for a study and construction documents.

For FY21, the request is $4 million from the county and in FY 22, $7 million from the county and $8 million from the state for a new school.

When added to the county’s portion for a new Beaver Run Elementary School, the county will be asked for $13 million in FY22, then $6 million in FY23 and, in FY24, nothing from county, but $5 million from the state.

“Keep in mind the total for Beaver Run, to rebuild it behind the existing school, will be $49.4 million. The county’s share is $7 million, then the following year another $7 million, then, in FY22, another $6 million.

“No doubt the Board of Education is going to ask for other projects. Two years later they are going to be cuing up the next building.

“We aren’t saying they aren’t needed, and we try to work with (Superintendent) Dr. (Donna) Hanlin, but right now, for Mardela, we are pressing pause. We want to let the dust settle,” Young said.

“Can we survive a $15 minimum wage? Probably. Can we survive Kirwin? Maybe. And if we have a recession? You’re really taxing the system at that point,” Young said.

But Hastings remains determined.

“On the County Council, I represent District 4. I don’t represent the Mardela district but I’m someone who is from that community and who has friends there. I have been getting a ton of people reaching out who have said Mardela’s time has come,” Hastings said.

“They thought it unfair to come up with what a new school addition would look like then to have it pulled back,” he said.

“That staff is without a doubt the best school. There is no better school.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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