Cecil County Commish Reject, in Secret Vote, Plan to Jumpstart New Tech School
A Cecil Times Special Report
The Cecil County Commissioners decided in a recent closed door meeting to turn downâon the usual 3-2 vote– a proposed new school of technology on the Elkton site of the vacant Basell property that already has science labs and could be bought and renovated for about one-third the cost of past plans to build a tech school from scratch.
The proposal would have jumpstarted the long delayed plans by the school system to upgrade vocational and technical education opportunities for high school students in Cecil County. And it could have been a cost-saving, landmark opportunity for the county to create an education/technology/business park on the 91-acre site that could be a lure for economic development and partnerships with other business and educational institutions.
For several months, the County Commissioners and representatives of the School Board and Cecil County Public Schools officials have been meeting privately to discuss the opportunity to acquire the property. (The state Open Meetings law allows closed sessions to discuss real estate acquisitions.) Cecil Times has known from the outset about the proposed project and its location but refrained from publishing details, at the request of multiple sources, due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations and assurances that both sides were working together in a positive manner on the proposal
However, in a brief notation on commissioner meeting minutes made available this week, it was stated that during a 5/15/12 closed session, there was a âconsensus of the Boardâ to âadvise the Board of Education and Public Schools via a letter that the Board has decided to discontinue discussions relating to the subject property for a technical high school.â
According to multiple sources, the âconsensusâ was actually the usual 3-2 tally, with the âThree AmigosâââCommissioners James Mullin (R-1), Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3) — opposing the plan while Commissioners Tari Moore (R-2) and Robert Hodge (R-5) supported it.
But the closed-door discussions leading up to the secret decision also meant that parents, students, and local business leaders who have long advocated improved technical education, were kept in the dark and unable to speak out to support the proposal.
County education officials and school board members were devastated by the Commissionersâ decision.
âIn our view, when making decisions of this import, prudence must be balanced with wisdom. In this case, the adage âpenny wise and pound foolishâ applies,â wrote Dr. DâEtte Devine, the Superintendent of Schools, in a 5/23/12 letter to the county Commissioners obtained by Cecil Times.
âTo say that we are deeply concerned about the commissionersâ failure to take advantage of such a tremendous opportunity, which would address the needs of secondary career and technical education for Cecil County students, is an understatement,â she wrote. The Basell property was âan ideal solutionâ and âexceptionally affordable,â she added.
William Manlove, a former County Commissioner and current school board member, said it was âtotally inexcusableâ for the commissioners to turn their back on a plan that had âunlimited possibilitiesâ but limited costs.
Currently, the county only offers vocational and technical training on a part-time basis to juniors and seniors at county high schools. The existing tech school, near Cecil College in North East, has limited facilities and has been determined to be unsuitable for expansion or overhaul to accommodate more students or new programs. Currently, 150 students are on waiting lists to get into tech programs, according to schools officials, but many of them may graduate from their regular high school without ever getting the tech training they seek.
For many years, proposals for a comprehensive, four-year tech school have been on the back burner, carried over in capital improvement plans of both the school system and the county government but never brought to the forefront because costs to build a school from scratch were deemed too highâas much as $61.7 million. [UPDATE: That figure did not include land costs since the school was proposed to be built on land the county already owned, next to the old school.]
Although the state pays much of the construction costs of schools, land costs are paid locally and the past cost projections figured the county would have to come up with $32.8 million while the state would pay an estimated $28.9 million, according to Tom Kappra, chief financial officer for the county schools.
But in recent years, the anticipated enrollment to justify a comprehensive, four year schoolâand the full allocation of state aidâhas not materialized. âThere was a lot of uncertainty on the BRAC impact,â said Lauren Camphausen, president of the countyâs elected school board. âWe were told there would be an onslaught of students coming to the county,â she said, because of military families and contractors relocating to the area due to expansion of the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County under the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.
When that influx didnât happen, school officials began re-thinking their tech school plans and considering keeping a part-time program but still looking at replacing the current facility in North East with a new building that could accommodate more students, new programs and changing technology. (The old tech building would be used for maintenance equipment and operations that are now scattered among several sites, including leased buildings, Camphausen said.)
Suddenly, a golden opportunity appeared a few months ago: the Basell property on Appleton Road, with 91 acres of land and an existing, vacant two-story building with more than 158,000 square feet of space, including 18,750 square feet of laboratory space, according to its listing on the countyâs economic development office website. The property has been vacant for many years, since Basell North America relocated.
The property had been priced out of reach but a price reduction made the facility much more attractive as a potential school site. An asking price of $6.5 million was discussed, according to multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, and a potential sub-sale of 10 acres to a third party for about $1 million could have brought the costs of acquisition by the county down to about $5.5 million.
Commissioner Moore said she toured the facility and it âdidnât seem to need a lot of renovation.â The building was in good condition but would need to be re-configured and modified to meet the needs of a school. School officials estimated that renovation and related costs would be about $9.9 million, for a total cost of $16.4 million. Of that amount, state officials indicated a willingness to provide $4 million, Kappra said.
Consequently, the proposal meant county costs of $12.4 millionâor $11.4 million if the possible 10 acre sell-off came through. Contrast that amount to the projected $32.8 million estimated county costs for building a new school from scratchâand that is why school officials and some County Commissioners were excited at the potential of the Basell site.
Commissioner Hodge said the project offered the possibility of multiple uses of the site, including the tech school, expanded recreational and sports fields under the countyâs Parks and Recreation programs, and attracting business to a potential education/business complex where companies could help train their future workforce in the skills they need for their operations.
âI thought it was a good idea, and a great opportunity,â Hodge told Cecil Times. But other commissioners were concerned with the costs. âBut if this isnât the most cost-effective solution, I donât know what is,â he added.
Moore said she supported the project as cost-efficient and felt it made sense both from an education and economic development standpoint. âI think education IS economic development,â she said. She felt there could also have been partnerships with industry that could have reduced costs further while providing additional educational opportunities for students.
The property is located near the Gore facility and a short distance from the new proposed University of Delaware high tech business complex, and some local school officials said partnerships with those operations could have been worked out.
Commissioner Broomell was said to have been concerned with the costs of the project and the timing, as the county still faces an uncertain economic future and the state is slated to continue to shift greater costs for teacher pensions onto the county next year. Cecil Times has called her for comment and will update this report upon her response.
The stumbling block of costs cited by some commissioners comes as the county has just put a wide range of construction projects on hold, in order to cut a half-cent off the previously proposed property tax rate in the recently adopted county budget for Fiscal 2013.
One of the points of contention is that land purchases cannot use county bond funds, Kappra noted. So the county would have to come up with the money from its âfund balanceâ or other sources to buy the property, but construction/renovation costs could be financed through capital construction bonds.
So about $6.5 million (or $5.5 million, if some acreage were sold off to a third party) could have been drawn from âfund balancesâ or unallocated money held in reserve by the county for contingencies. The commissioners were willing to spend $3 million of fund balances to pay annual operating expenses in their new budget but at the last minute trimmed their reliance on the fund to about $660,000 after delaying a number of road projects.
In contrast, the Basell property purchase would be a long term asset, with potential offsets of the costs through grants such as for parkland development on the site or sale of other acreage to businesses.
Sources said some county staff were cool to the project because of a reluctance to tap the reserved funds which total some $30 million overall but provide a healthy cushion for future budgets and contingencies. And some felt the Basell property should stay on the property tax rolls as an income source for county coffers, rather than converting it to a tax exempt, public use facility.
Camphausen said she and other school board members felt they presented a âgood faith proposalâ that was âextremely well-vetted.â The board is âextremely disappointed with the decision,â she said. But, trying to keep an optimistic view, she added, âthe door is never shutâ and the project might re-surface in the future.
Dr. Devine told Cecil Times the schools were âbetween a rock and a hard place,â trying to conduct private negotiations so as to get the best possible price from the seller, win over the county Commissioners, and win support from state school officialsâall while not being able to enlist public support from business, parents and students who support votech programs.
State school construction officials toured the Basell site and âblessedâ the project enthusiastically, she said. And the labs at the site already have equipment the county schools âcould only dream about,â she added.
Now, âWeâre sort of stymied,â Dr. Devine said. âThis was an affordable option to meet a critical need,â she said. The need still exists but the solution is nowhere in sight.