Mardela school scrapped for now from spending plan

Mardela Middle and High School has occupied the same site on Delmar Road since 1937. The current school was constructed in multiple renovation projects between 1958 and 1981.

Highly anticipated plans for a new middle and high school complex in Mardela Springs appear either dead or significantly delayed for now.

Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver has officially removed more than $40 million in capital monies expected to be disbursed over five years for a new school to serve the western side of the county.

The decision is a blow to western Wicomico residents who just last year celebrated that a new school for their children had finally made it to first in line on the school board’s construction schedule. A new school for Beaver Run Elementary in Salisbury is the next to break ground – Mardela was expected to come after it.

Parents and school administrators had held several forums in anticipation of the project, with consensus gelling around a school that would be 106,000 square feet in size, feature a revised parking layout, and include a two-story addition with workrooms, a media center and a new auxiliary gym.

Once state funding was added to the project, the total cost was estimated at $71.8 million.

The current school, which is regarded as an essential building that serves the community as a hub for activities and civic pride, has remained essentially unchanged since the early 1980s.

In a public event last year, Culver wondered aloud why Mardela supporters didn’t support building a new school on a better-located site. In hearings, however, public consensus was that school remain on the same property on Delmar Road, where it has existed since 1937.

The current school was constructed in multiple addition and renovation projects between 1958 and 1981.

Last May, as the county was completing its budget to take effect in July, Culver offered up $291,000 slated for roof repairs to Westside Intermediate School to begin a renovation study for Mardela Middle & High School.

His offer, made in the form of a promise, followed an outpouring of objections from students, parents and teachers at Mardela who were disappointed even then that study costs – and a subsequent new school – had been removed from the budget.

The County Executive routinely submits the capital budget to the County Council in December. It is a five-year plans that undergoes some adjustments each year, depending on revenues and shifting priorities.

The county usually borrows about $10 million annually for big-ticket items, with council approval coming in February. On Jan. 7, however, the council agreed to delay a capital budget decision until late spring, given uncertainties about upcoming state spending requirements that will come from the current General Assembly session.

Wicomico’s bond debt is about $116 million currently, with the county making about $15.3 million in payments annually. About $11.1 million goes to the principal and $4.1 million goes toward interest.

Culver has said various moves under consideration in Annapolis affect county spending. He cited costs expected if the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – popularly referred to as the Kirwan Commission – are implemented.

State funding questions

Last week, a chicken vs. egg scenario entered to controversy when the nonpolitical state entity that rules on school construction left Mardela off its list. Culver used that occurrence as a reason back off on the new school, while school administrators countered that the state’s decision was anything but final.

According to state Interagency Committee on School Construction documents dated Dec. 31, Beaver Run remains in the state’s funding pipeline; citing “fiscal constraints,” however, Mardela was deferred.

So Culver acted – and explained his move in a statement:

“In short, the state is delaying their match to the school at this time,” Culver said. “From a funding standpoint on our end, we do not yet know what the Kirwan legislation is going to cost us and we will have the minimum wage hike, among other expenses coming at us this year and into the future.

“In no way am I saying that Mardela Middle/High does not need attention. We need to see where the state is with their portion of the funding and what funding mandates will be passed by the legislature. From a borrowing standpoint, we should also wait for Beaver Run to be completed prior to starting another large school improvement.”

Wicomico schools Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin countered that Culver might be pulling the funding plug prematurely. She said the state’s funding approval process is a long one and decision makers judge a local jurisdiction’s commitment to a projecting when considering it.

If Wicomico’s leaders fail to show support, therefore, neither will the state.

“Local support is critical to obtaining state support for school construction projects,” Hanlin said in a statement.

“If the state doesn’t see that a county is allocating funds for a school project, the state will be less likely to give planning approval and eventually state construction funding,” she said.

Hanlin stressed that there’s still more time to battle in favor of the school project.

“The process of securing state approval for school construction projects is a long one, and it is far from over,” Hanlin said.

“While the state Interagency Committee on School Construction has not yet given planning approval for the Mardela Middle and High renovation project, the state is only one-third of the way through its recommendations this year.

“The three-stage review and recommendation process is ongoing,” she continued. “The Mardela project is currently listed as deferred for planning approval, but the IAC will continue to evaluate and consider this project as it develops its next and then its final list of recommendations, which may not come until June.”

Hanlin said the Mardela renovation and addition project is a result of the feasibility study that was completed last year and has been recommended by the School Building Commission, which has County Executive, County Council and community member representation.

Additionally, she pointed out that early last week, the publicly elected Board of Education formally approved the educational specifications for the Mardela project, and those specs were just forwarded to the state last Wednesday.

“To receive state planning approval and then state construction funding, the school system needs county funding up front to complete the design requirements,” Hanlin said.

Bond market borrowing

This year, the county is not following its normal routine when it comes to financing long-term, big-spending projects. Routinely, county leaders travel to New York City and borrow the cash from the bond markets.

Officials said that this year they might instead tap a line of credit – or a Banking Anticipation Note – to pay for capital projects, which could save several hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-term interest costs.

In a statement read aloud at the Board of Education’s Jan. 14 meeting, school board President Don Fitzgerald blasted both the County Executive and the capital spending decision.

“This is a big slap in the face of the families who live in the Mardela community,” he said.

“Again, here we go. It would be nice to have an executive who supports education.”

Fitzgerald has repeatedly criticized Culver’s determination to build county cash reserves to weather any possible economic downturns.

The County Executive is likely to feel some political heat for the decision, given the reaction of some western Wicomico parents and education proponents.

“I’ve moved past the disappointment and emotion,” said Michelle Wright of Mardela Springs, a former school board member who has been a leader in efforts to bring improvements to the school.

Wright, who confronted Culver about his hesitancy on the project at a December hearing, said her anger has been replaced with a call to action.

“My goal now is to inform the public, to bring awareness, to get the west side (of Wicomico) to explain to Mr. Culver the importance, and get the project back in line.”

Wright said the executive could still include the school in the plan, make a case for it to state officials, and then alter decisions later.

“I don’t understand why he doesn’t understand,” she said. “It’s a plan – it’s a moving target. For him not to have it there at all must mean he doesn’t support it.”

She said the school’s physical conditions demand prompt action.

“To go another five years without changes at this school is just unacceptable,” Wright said.

Eileen Johnson of the advocacy group Wicomico PUSH4Education said the last-minute change in direction had not been telegraphed, leaving people especially upset.

“(The) lack of information, communication, and transparency continues to be our biggest obstacle,” Johnson said. “This is what makes people distrust their government — when they promise one thing, give their word that they have your back and will stand up for what you need, and then discard that promise without communicating about it.

“I only found out about the cut to Mardela renovations, which have been needed for decades, from a Facebook alert from a Mardela parent.”

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