Cecil County Schools Renew Push for new Votech School at Basell Complex
Cecil County Public Schools officials took a first step Wednesday to re-launch their efforts to win county approval of a new vocational-technical high school on their dream site—the vacant Basell science labs and buildings in Elkton— with an appeal to business leaders and a new, cost-sharing proposal that will be presented to the County Commissioners.
The revised concept would knock off $1.5 million from general county government costs, by tapping separate “fund balances” maintained as a cushion for unforeseen expenses by the separate School Board. In addition, the deal could be re-structured so that the 91-acres of land would be treated as a donation by the current owners, so that the full local costs of the building acquisition and renovations could be financed by a county bond issue. (Bond proceeds may only be used for building purchase and construction projects, not land purchases.)
That would mean no out-of-pocket, up front costs out of the county government’s own more than $18.5 million currently unallocated “fund balances.” Resistance to tapping some of those reserve funds was cited by some commissioners as a reason to oppose the project.
The usual “Three Amigos” majority faction of the commissioners—Diana Broomell (R-4), James Mullin (R-1) and Michael Dunn (R-3)– voted against the initial proposal during a secret, closed-door worksession on 5/15/12. Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-2) supported the plan.
[SEE previous Cecil Times Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/05/cecil-county-commish-reject-in-secret-vote-plan-to-jumpstart-new-tech-school/
All told, the revised proposal would cost $16.4 million, with state funds providing more than $4.5 million, CCPS reserve funds of $1.5 million and county bond funds of $10.3 million. Those figures reflect a potential savings of $45.3 million over past proposals to build a new school from scratch, instead of the renovation of the relatively new Basell property.
School officials are now developing a subtle, but pointed, campaign to build public support for the new tech school-- in contrast to the earlier hush, hush, behind closed doors approach that was necessitated by the sensitive nature of negotiations with the owners of the property and, most importantly, with the Cecil County Commissioners.
But supporters of the new tech school figure that local residents need to hear about the positives of the proposal and put some pressure on the Commissioners to reverse their position.
Dr. D’Ette Devine, the county schools superintendent, and schools staff presented their concept on Wednesday at a meeting of local business owners who serve on a “trade advisory” panel that meets regularly with teachers and schools staff to advise on current trends and employer training needs for students at the limited, existing school of technology in North East.
“We intend to revisit this with our commissioners, with a revised proposal,” Dr. Devine told the meeting of about 50 business and trade leaders. Noting that Cecil County was the first in the state to create a votech school many years ago, she said “it is time we take that lead again.”
Perry Willis, executive director for support services for the schools, presented a detailed overview of the current part-time votech program and its limitations versus the potential for expanded student enrollment and curriculum at a new facility at the Basell property, located at 912 Appleton Rd., near the Gore tech/industrial complex and a few miles from the University of Delaware-led high tech business park now under construction on the site of the former Chrysler auto plant.
Currently, second semester juniors and first semester seniors at local high schools can enroll in specialized training in 13 areas of study. The program, housed in a warehouse-looking cinderblock building adjacent to Bayview elementary school, serves 180 students a year. But 150 students are currently on waiting lists for votech training and many may graduate from their home high school without ever getting into the training classes they seek. The existing building has limited facilities and cannot be expanded.
Current county student enrollment does not warrant a full-time, four year votech school, Willis explained. But the Basell property—with its 18,750 square feet of fully equipped laboratory space included in the two-story, 158,000 square foot main building—could allow the schools to serve up to 580 students and expand curriculum into seven additional areas of study, including homeland security, biomedical sciences, interactive media, heavy automotive skills, and computer sciences. Discussions have also been held with Cecil College for possible joint usage of some space.
The property has been vacant for about five years, after Basell North America merged with another plastic and chemical company and relocated its headquarters out of Elkton. The building was constructed in 1990 and renovated in 2006 and the property includes two smaller buildings for storage and utility services. Initially listed for sale at over $20 million, the property tax assessment was reduced a year ago to $6.5 million and during the winter, the sales price was cut drastically to the same figure.
Tom Kappra, chief financial officer for the schools, said that the owners of the Basell property are willing to work with CCPS officials and are “excited” about the prospect of converting it to a tech school. One plan under discussion is to craft the deal as a $6.5 million building purchase price—since the building would likely appraise for much more—and treat the land as a charitable donation by the owners to CCPS. In that way, the county could issue bonds for purchase of the building.
Lauren Camphausen, president of the school board, said the board was “committed to see this through” and would make cuts elsewhere in the schools budget if needed to make the project happen. “This has been a top priority of the county for years,” she said.
Henry Shaffer, the former superintendent of schools, said the low price of the Basell property and the cheaper costs to renovate rather than build a school from scratch, made this proposal “the proverbial gift horse.”
“Shame on us, whether we’re educators or commissioners, if we don’t take advantage of this,” he added.
But Commissioner Broomell, who was the only commissioner to attend the meeting and sat in silence during the presentation, was not convinced.
She told Cecil Times she was still concerned about costs and questioned the renovation expense estimates from CCPS. She said state officials who toured the building questioned the adequacy of the HVAC systems and she cited a New Castle county school that was placed in a renovated facility but has been unable to open due to unforeseen construction problems.
She said other Cecil County schools, such as North East high, have listed renovation needs, and “shouldn’t we be making that a top priority?”
Meanwhile, a large postcard-sized pitch piece was circulated by the CCPS, with one side showing the address of the Basell Property and a picture of the facility with the word “Opportunity” superimposed on the buildings. The flip side offers the fine print details, listing the cost savings of the Basell property versus a from-scratch school construction project, the increased number of students who could be served and the seven new technical fields of study that could be phased in at the Basell facility.
It’s not glossy, it’s not glitzy. But it is full of information and talking points that could be widely circulated around the county to build community support.
[UPDATE: See Letter to the Editor from Commissioner Broomell, explaining her reasons for opposing the Basell site, here: http://ceciltimes.com/letters-to-the-editor/ ]