Schools officials explain surprise Long Avenue exit

new board offices

In a move that was surprising for both its timing and its probable public reception, county schools officials have agreed to rent new office space in north Salisbury to house some 150 employees.

The school system announced last week that all of the services now located in the Central Office complex – the longtime headquarters location on Long Avenue next to Wicomico High School, as well as assorted annexes across the county – will be moving this summer to the Northgate Business Park off Naylor Mill Road.

Nearly all Central Office service operations will be in one location, under one roof. Officials said the move would “allow for greater efficiency in services and operations, while resolving longstanding facility issues with the annex portable buildings in a cost-conscious manner.”

The school system said it will pay $8.45 per square foot for 30,000 square feet of finished, furnished office space.

The annual lease cost for the Northgate location will be $253,500, with the monthly payments coming from the school system’s ongoing Operating Budget.

While there are no rules that require such a lease to be offered through a competitive-bidding process, schools officials said they conducted “extensive comparison shopping over many months, and this space is far less costly than significantly less suitable spaces in the Salisbury area.”

The Board of Education on Thursday approved the 20-year lease agreement for Building 3, Suite No. 100 at Northgate Business Park. The space is large enough that the school board’s public meetings will be held there.

The Long Avenue building would be converted into an Infants and Toddlers instruction facility.

What to do about the crowded and outdated conditions at the Long Avenue facility has been school board discussion for years. State mandates concerning the required number of administrative personnel have been repeatedly cited for a situation in which dozens of system employees occupy offices in portables that stretch to the Wi-Hi bus ramp lot.

Superintendent John Fredericksen, in numerous public meetings in which he has addressed facilities issues, has mentioned the rental possibility. Most recently, however, his comments have suggested that East Salisbury Elementary or Wicomico Middle could be suitable office locations.

A dramatic move to a business park or quasi-retail location has not been part of the discussion occurring outside the Long Avenue meeting rooms.

In a statement released Monday, Fredericksen contended that a recently aborted plan to redistrict certain school enrollment boundaries accelerated a need to act.

“For the past several years, long before the School Facilities Task Force began meeting, the Board and staff discussed during public Board of Education meetings how to vacate the annex portables, which had outlived their useful life and required costly repairs,” the statement said.

“Relocating the Central Office, including offices in the annexes, to a school building was considered, as was renting space in the community. However, none of the properties that were researched were the right fit for our needs.

“Repurposing either Wicomico Middle or East Salisbury Elementary as offices was explored as an option during discussions leading to the Facility Task Force Report. This repurposing would require redistricting to assign students to other schools, and it would also require significant local financial resources to convert a school into offices, since the state does not match funding for a non-school project.”

Schools officials did virtually nothing to sell the idea to the public in advance of last week’s decision. Possibly compounding the controversy is the fact that County Executive Bob Culver attempted to get schools officials to embrace his idea to convert the soon-defunct Bennett Middle School to administrative offices.

In a statement released Monday, Culver sought to distance himself from the decision.

see his point of view

“I am aware of the Board of Education’s proposal to relocate their offices to a leased facility in Northwood Industrial Park. However, I do not have complete details on the associated financial implications,” he said.

“The County Executive has minimal control over decisions made by the Board of Education whose members are appointed by the governor. I can try to persuade, but can exercise no real oversight.

“I want to be assured that this proposed transaction will not have any negative impacts on classroom funding and/or other priority Board of Education Capital projects, and I call upon the Board to provide the public with that reassurance,” he said.

According to Fredericksen, the rental conforms to the system’s internally approved budget. The County Council has yet to formally decide what it’s financial contribution will be to Fiscal Year 2016 schools spending.

Fredericksen said some special circumstances created an opportunity to act.

“Last month, the Knowland Group contacted the school system to see if they could donate their office furniture to Wicomico Schools due to the company’s reorganization,” the superintendent’s statement said.

“When school officials went to see the furnishings that were being offered, they learned that the furniture was for the whole office and was valued at more than $400,000. They also learned that the company’s current office space was becoming available for rent.

“This provided the opportunity for the school system to move into a finished, furnished office space at a fraction of the cost of other relocation options.”

The school board has an option to buy the rented facility. When asked the likelihood of such an action, Fredericksen replied:

“The lease offers the option to purchase at years 10 and 15, so that discussion is some time away. Depending on future funding levels and owner interests, it is relatively likely in the mid-future.”

Fredericksen said a preliminary estimate of the cost to partially renovate Wicomico Middle into offices was $24 million to $30 million in capital expenditure, not to mention the need to redistrict and consolidate.

The conversion of other schools or buildings into office-type use would be similar in cost, requiring additional accommodations to address codes and ordinances. And, since such a project would not be a renovation of instructional space, there would be no matching state funds.

That would mean 100 percent of the cost would have had to come from local bonds, he said.

“For several years the Board has expressed concern over the working environment of our employees in the Annex area of our present location. The cost of repair or replacement far exceeded the funds available to us,” said school Board President Ron Willey.

“This opportunity to lease property that will satisfy these issues as well as allow Central Office personnel to be housed in one safe and healthy location was the best solution we have found in our recent years of searching,” he said.

Plans for the relocation are fluid as details are being worked out, but the current plans calls for the existing Central Office building on Long Avenue to house the growing Infants and Toddlers Program, which is now renting space on Northwood Drive.

Relocating Infants and Toddlers from rented space in north Salisbury to owned space would save about $50,000 a year. The new location would be easily accessible to the families who use the Infants and Toddlers services.

 

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

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