Cecil County Schools Up Ante on Votech School but 2 Amigos Balk
School officials sought a go-ahead Tuesday from Cecil County Commissioners to proceed with an engineering study to determine the suitability of the Basell property for conversion to a new vocational-technical school. But two of the Three Amigos faction of the commissioners’ majority bloc balked and the third was AWOL.
Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) officials, who first proposed the votech school plan 10 months ago, pointed out that time was of the essence to make a decision, in order to get the process underway in keeping with the state’s financing schedule since state funds would be a key component of the project. But delay is often the middle name of the Cecil County Commissioners and Tuesday was no exception.
Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) didn’t bother to show up for the meeting, with no excuses offered, even though he had attended a brief worksession of the county commissioners earlier in the day. Commissioner James Mullin (R-1) at one point claimed that CCPS should consider shutting down one existing general high school and moving students around in order to relocate tech programs to an existing school building. Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) reiterated her opposition to the Basell project and suggested putting trailers at the current old tech school site.
The Three Amigos voted against the Basell project in a secret, closed-door meeting on 5/15/12. [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/ ]
Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-2) reiterated their support for the Basell tech school project and Moore said she wanted to schedule an up or down vote next week, at a public worksession, on the engineering study request.
School officials said Tuesday that they would come up with an estimated $60,000, from current school operating funds, for a detailed engineering study of the sprawling Basell scientific and lab complex, located on 91 acres on Appleton road, that has been vacant since its owners moved out about five years ago.
Tom Kappra, chief financial officer for the county schools, outlined the costs of the project and included a few updates since CCPS first proposed the plan to the county commissioners.
The asking sales price on the property is $6.5 million and renovation costs are estimated at $9.9 million, for a total of $16.4 million. State education officials have offered to pay $4.6 million of the costs, while the CCPS would dip into its own “fund balance” operating budget to come up with $1.5 million. (CCPS first proposed its fund balance option in July at a meeting with tech school supporters.) The county would be asked to contribute $3.8 million toward the renovation.
Kappra said the $6.5 million purchase price, as well as the county’s share of the renovation costs, could be offset through issuing bonds for the project and pointed out the county’s school bonds tally would still be lower than in the past because the schools have deferred $51 million in maintenance projects due to budget concerns.
In the past, the Amigos voiced concerns about suggestions that the county dip into its own ‘fund balance’ to come up with money for the project. But the bonding option would eliminate that issue.
Kappra also said the schools would dig deep into the CCPS operating budget to come up with other associated costs for the project, such as $60,000 to reconfigure the old tech school in North East for equipment storage and consolidating operations currently housed in leased space in Elkton.
Pointing out that renovation of the Basell property was much cheaper than previous estimates of building a new school from scratch on the campus of the old, inadequate tech school in North East, Dr. D’Ette Devine, CCPS schools superintendent, said, “We believe it’s the most affordable option” and asked the commissioners to “reconsider” the project.
But some commissioners had their own numbers in mind. Broomell said commissioners had been given a “mandate” by citizens: “no new taxes.” She suggested that CCPS install “double-wides” at the old tech school to accommodate the 155 students a year on waiting lists for tech classes. (She didn’t explain how auto repair or welding could be taught in a trailer.)
Lauren Camphausen, president of the school board, made a spirited defense of the project and challenged Mullin on how many school board meetings he had bothered to attend in his nearly four years as a commissioner. The answer was two meetings, both budget-related.
She said the school board had worked hard for years to consider all options on how to address the need for expanded vo-tech facilities to meet the demands of students and local employers who expect new hires to be trained in the latest technology and equipment. “We’re not serving enough kids,” she said.
Mullin tried to question just how hard the school board had looked at all options, including shutting down one existing high school, transferring general students elsewhere, and converting an old school to a votech center. “If you’re really sincere about the greater good,” he said, “that is something that should be seriously looked at.”
Hodge responded that Mullin’s comment would be interpreted as meaning he “wants to close down Bo Manor,” the high school in Mullin’s district. “Politically, even if you had the balls to do it,” Hodge told Mullin, “you’d have to spend more” to renovate an old high school to provide the labs and specialized equipment needed for tech programs.
The Basell property already has 18,750 square feet of fully equipped science laboratories included in the 158,000 square-foot, two-story building on the site. The facility was fully renovated in 2006.
The old vo-tech school now serves 180 students a year—with almost as many students on a waiting list for classes but who now cannot get the education they want due to the limited space and facilities at the old school. In contrast, the Basell property could serve 580 students a year and vastly expand the course offerings to at least seven new subject areas, including homeland security, biomedical sciences, interactive media, heavy automotive repair, and computer sciences.
(There might even be room for a special classroom for remedial education for some elected officials.)