News Analysis: For West Salisbury Elementary, a case of bad timing

Constructed in 1964, whether to replace or repair West Salisbury Elementary is the subject of widespread debate.

Constructed in 1964, whether to replace or repair West Salisbury Elementary is the subject of widespread debate.

A mere five months ago, proponents of a plan to build a new West Salisbury Elementary were expressing pride and relief that their half-century-old school might finally be replaced.

Months and months of meetings and studies and workshops and more meetings had crafted a plan that would promise a new school on West Road within five years.

The Board of Education, its facilities managers and planners regard 50 years as a typical lifespan for a school. Generally, as a school approaches such a service duration, it’s given a place in the school construction line.

It was in June 201, then, that Wicomico’s school board began an examination of WSE’s “educational adequacy.”

Built in 1964, some improvements and additions have been completed throughout the history of the building, including a water/storage building, a parking lot  and an interior renovation.

Because of crowding based on school districting, WSE’s teachers have to use five portable classrooms now on the site.

The 2011 study was meant to identify modernization needs and the associated costs. The scope of the study is to accommodate the 2017 proposed enrollment of 282.

Two general options immediately presented themselves: renovation/expansion and new construction. Planners, along with a special committee called the Facilities Task Force — made up of of schools officials, former and currently elected, and others — broke all that down into four concepts:

•Concept 1 — Fully renovate the existing facility with no expansion to fulfill programmatic needs.

•Concept 2 — Fully renovate the existing building and construct additions to fulfill programmatic needs.

•Concept 3 — Build a replacement facility adjacent to the existing building to avoid relocation of existing students and staff.

•Concept 4 — Build a replacement facility at the school’s present location to minimize utility and pavement runs from the public roadway.

Task force members decided Concept 1 didn’t address any programmatic deficiencies, but only replaced “existing building systems that have reached the end of their useful lifespan.”

Concept 2, they said, improved programmatic deficiencies and the physical environment, but forced some programmatic and functional compromises.

Members also determined Concept 2 had the longer construction schedule. The life-cycle costs of each of those options are higher per square foot than the new building options because of the inefficiencies of the existing building.

 A decision to go with

the Concept 3 option

Concepts 3 and 4, the tax force decided, best addressed the program and have lower relative life cycle  costs than Concepts 1 and 2.

Concept 3 has higher site construction costs due to its location  further removed from public roadway and utilities; however, due to eliminating the need to relocate students and staff during construction, phasing costs were greatly reduced.

The Facilities Task Force recommended Concept 3. Its primary reasons:

Because a new school would be constructed, modern educational and programming criteria can fully be met.

A newly designed school using a more linear layout can more easily provide the infrastructure for new teaching technologies.

Because students and staff will not be relocated during construction, phasing costs will be significantly lower than Concepts 1, 2 and 4; costs associated  with relocating an entire school can be significant.

Although site construction costs are relatively higher than Concept 4, safety can be improved by distancing the school from the public roadway, and more flexibility will be possible with regard to bus circulation, drop-off, parking and play areas.

The county’s consultants performed their own review and reached the same conclusions, and supported Concept 3.

With the exception of Concept 1 excepted, the estimated costs of each concept was similar:

•Concept 1: $16.51 million.

•Concept 2: $26.36 million

•Concept 3: $24.44 million.

•Concept 4: $25.63 million.

There were additional decisions to be made, however.

The school board had planned for the new school to house just pre-kindergarten through Grade 2. The new building, officials decided, would offer a chance to consolidate some students, teachers and administrators.

So, it was agreed that the plans be expanded, and Grades 3, 4 and 5 be added, bringing the student population up to approximately 600 students.

More grades, more students and more teachers would mean a higher overall construction expense: The cost to implement Concept 3 was escalated to $38.8 million, with potential inflation scenarios pushing the cost to more than $41 million.

The hope was that the project could actually be ready for classes by the 2018-19 school year.

With the school board on board, the then-county executive, Rick Pollitt, asked the County Council to adopt a resolution providing the issuance and sale of general obligation bonds in an aggregate amount not to exceed $16.525 million — the state would kick-in most of  the remainder, as has normally been the case in previous school projects.

The first step in that was floating a bond for $1.25 million to draft plans for WSE’s replacement.

Culver takes surprising post-election steps

Among the many issues in the 2014 campaign for county executive, West Salisbury Elementary was nonexistent, at least in a public sense.

Clearly there was a sense county-wide that the long debate over plans for a new Bennett Middle School had created some divisions, but WSE was not used as a rallying cry.

Culver, concerned about state funding prospects for the school, did not want to commit cash to an architecture plan — if the newly elected state leadership cut funding, and wasn’t willing to supplement WSE construction, Culver feared the county would be stuck  paying the costs on its own.

Pledging his commitment renovating the school at a lower cost, the new county executive quickly formed a panel of local construction contractors and others to evaluate what could be done to improve school conditions for the facility.

Said Culver at the time: “It is difficult for me to understand why a school that had not been considered a significant priority until 2014 has reached a point two years later where renovations and improvements cannot be considered and a complete tear-down and replacement is deemed necessary.”

The Culver panel’s report, released in late January, recommended that West Salisbury Elementary School be remodeled and added onto, rather than torn down and replaced.

The report assembled recommendations prepared by Fisher Architecture, Gillis-Gilkerson Builders, John Palmer Jr. and Johnnie Miller of Electrical Solutions and Peninsula Roofing Inc.

“$41 million is a huge project that we cannot afford right now,” Culver said at the time.

“It’s about the cost, that has a lot to do with it, but it’s also about taking care of our properties,” he said.

Culver’s report did not specifically list overall costs.

Still, the report found that the school is in immediate need of new windows and air-conditioning. Culver said he would approve those maintenance items in time for the fall school term, which, he said, would cost about $2 million.

The Fisher Architecture section of the report recommends:

•Cosmetic improvement to restrooms.

•Security improvements to the main entrance.

•A covered drop-off area for commuting students.

•Added classrooms and a new gymnasium.

•Cosmetic upgrades to the entire school.

•Continued preventative maintenance of the building’s 1995 roof.

Though the report doesn’t cite hard numbers, the anecdotal estimates for repairs range from a low of $3 million to a high of $11 million.

In recent days, the initial outrage over the West Salisbury Elementary decision has been overtaken by concerns across town, pertaining to Phase 3 of the Bennett Middle School replacement.

That situation has the Culver on the offensive and defensive on two separate fronts; both issues involve plans that were thought to be settled, but have been reopened for public debate.

Which school issue will dominate the public’s feedback on Tuesday is unknown.

What is certain, however, is that Culver is seeking to remind all the sides that he is determined to save the county money, even if that means upsetting different groups who are sympathetic to school board priorities.

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