Leaders get an earful on Mardela renovation delay

Those in support of a new Mardela Middle & High School — and disappointed County Executive Bob Culver removed the cost from the Capital Improvement Plan — crowded into the Council Chamber Tuesday night, spilled into the hallway and adamantly objected.

“Mr. Culver, I want to see you put Mardela back into the CIP … starting tomorrow. I see no reason why it was removed,” a determined Mardela resident Michelle Wright said at the Wicomico County Council meeting.

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

Several council members spoke in favor of funding for the school, with Council President John Cannon saying he has never seen plans for an entire school removed from a CIP.

Wright reminded Culver – as well as council members and others in the audience – the school was built in 1958 but hasn’t been renovated in 39 years.

The structure could be 70 years old before anything is done to improve it, she said.

Students have gym class in the hallway, nine portable classrooms, no space available to add Advanced Placement classes, no fire suppression system, no secure entrance in the vestibule and failing mechanical systems, she said.

Mardela Principal Lisa Hastings said the community “takes great pride in the education and overall experience we are able to provide to our students and to the community.”

“We all understand a renovation is absolutely needed if we are to provide our children with the same level of safety and academic opportunities that other schools are able to provide,” she said.

Because enrollment has increased, new teachers have been hired, but four of them move between classrooms all day, making them unable to greet students at the door or assess needs.

Another woman said students attend the school for seven years and renovations “simply can’t afford to wait any longer.”

A sixth-grader at Mardela, speaking eloquently and to applause, said every part of the school is special “but we need more of it.”

“I’ve heard the arguments about why you are not funding this, but what about the generation to come? Eventually this school is going to deteriorate beyond repair.

“School is a place (that) helps them to build relationships, take a break every once in a while, get the help that they need, the encouragement, the support that they need.

“I really hope that these renovations do go through because it is not just my school. It is everybody’s school,” she said.

An animated eighth-grader with an easy smile, who introduced himself as Evan, said he might say he doesn’t like Mardela, “but if we had a little more money, I might like it a little bit.”

During testing, he said, rooms are too hot or too cold.

He has had to run from the band room, outside and across the school to get to his next class, and is often late, he said.

High schoolers bump into the younger children in too-narrow hallways, he said, adding, “That is what I like to call home. Mardela.”

“We’ve been without a major renovation for so long. We can’t fit into the school as it is right now. If we could get it back on the Capital Improvement Plan that would be great,” he said.

“You see all the people who are standing? There’s plenty more that are at a baseball game tonight because we have a really good team,” he said.

As the audience applauded, Cannon joked, “That will be Marc Kilmer’s replacement right there.”

He was referring to Kilmer’s announcement that he is resigning from the council and moving back to his home state.

Alana Close, a graduate of Mardela, attended four years and said a fish came out of a school sink and the HVAC unit spewed black smoke, forcing students into the hallway because they had nowhere else to go.

“We do not have adequate protection,” she said.

She asked a teacher what would happen if someone went into the school with intentions to harm and the teacher told her, “We pray.”

“I’m sorry, at this point in time, we have prayed,” and were pleased when the school was put into the CIP, she said.

“We’re talking if the children are worth funding. Please consider funding your students’ future before Mardela becomes a past,” he said.

At mid-week, Culver issued a news release explaining why Mardela was cut from the CIP, and at the meeting Tuesday night, Assistant County Administrator Weston Young reviewed details.

Mardela deserves a new school, without question, he said, but the county is facing other major expenses including the impact of the imminent $15 per hour minimum wage that will cost the county $7 million annually and additional funding in the millions of dollars for schools under the Kirwin Commission.

Meantime, there are predictions of an upcoming recession.

Culver promised the audience $300,000 earmarked for a new roof for Westside Intermediate School would be dedicated to Mardela improvements because the Board of Education isn’t ready to begin the roof project.

“What you need is a whole damned school, but you don’t have the room where you are,” Culver told the audience Tuesday night.

“New schools are supposed to last 50 years. If we spent $40 million between our money and the state money, that school has to last some time,” he said.

“I owe each one of you an apology because I didn’t get out to your area and tell you what we were doing. I should have come to your school and had an assembly. I’m more than happy to come and talk to anybody,” he said.

But Board of Education President Don Fitzgerald wasn’t accepting his apology, even though, in the past, he praised Culver.

“Tonight I’m not praising him. No, sir, I’m not because I know the money is there. Oh, yes, it is. Yes, it is,” he said, glaring at Culver.

“It’s priorities. You can’t sit there and tell me the students at Mardela are not worth it. … Kicking this can down the road is bull,” he said.

“We’ve had all of these alumni here from Mardela, speaking from their heart. I’m speaking from my heart.

County Councilman Josh Hastings said members of the General Assembly had a school construction bill that didn’t advance during this year’s legislative session but there is another bill to try to obtain extra funding for all school construction, and he is hoping it will help with the Mardela project.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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