Cecil County Tech School: Schools Chief, Treasurer Feehley, Clash on Basell Property
The proposed establishment of a new vocational/technical education school on the reduced-price Basell property has been embraced by much of the county’s educational and business leadership, but scorned by the Three Amigos majority of the County Commissioners. Now the county’s Treasurer, Bill Feehley, has weighed in against the plan, at the request of Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4), in an email to members of the county’s Economic Development Commission (EDC).
But Dr. D’Ette Devine, the county schools Superintendent, responded with some pointed comments in her own missive to the EDC, which is slated to hold its monthly meeting this week. Her response disputed Feehley’s assertions and calculations, which she said had been refuted in past one-on-one discussions with him, and she questioned, “It makes one wonder about the true motive” of his public objections now.
The point and counterpoint to the EDC and the panel’s potential response also raises questions about the new composition of the usually pro-business EDC, which has been recast with some new appointees put in place by the Three Amigos faction, as well as the role of the county’s new director of economic development, Lisa Webb. Webb, sources say, has privately opposed the tech school plan for the Basell property because she wants to put a feather in her cap by possibly, eventually finding a business-only occupant for the site, which has been vacant for over five years.
In a closed-door, secret session on 5/15/12, the Three Amigos majority of the five-member Board of County Commissioners—Broomell and County Commissioners James Mullin (R-1) and Michael Dunn (R-3)—voted against exploring the option of Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) acquiring the 91-acre site at 912 Appleton Road, which includes a now vacant 158,000 square foot building equipped with 18,750 square feet of modern scientific and technical laboratories. [SEE Cecil Times Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/05/cecil-county-commish-reject-in-secret-vote-plan-to-jumpstart-new-tech-school/ ]
The facility was built in 1990 and fully renovated in 2006, but its former owner abandoned the property as part of a corporate merger with a Texas-based operation. CCPS became interested in the property earlier this year after its listed sales price was slashed from over $20 million to $6.5 million.
CCPS leaders regrouped after the initial Commissioners majority vote against the project and took their case to the public in a July meeting with supporters of votech education in the county. [SEE exclusive Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/07/cecil-county-schools-renew-push-for-new-votech-school-at-basel-complex/ ]
And a week ago, the Basell property votech school proposal was discussed, and supported, in a community forum hosted by the Cecil Business Leaders for Better Government, a group of local business interests that has created both a political action committee (PAC) and a non-profit educational arm to promote a pro-business agenda in the county.
So with all that background under our collective belts, enter Feehley—the independently elected County Treasurer who will be out of a job when Charter government takes effect in Cecil County in December. In a recent email to the EDC that was obtained by Cecil Times, Feehley said he was sending his tech school objections to the panel at the “request” of Broomell.
Feehley questioned whether “declining enrollment” overall in county schools meant that there would be a corresponding decline in interest/enrollment in tech school programs. Dr. Devine responded that there has been a waiting list, currently at 155 students, for highly specialized vo-tech classes at the current limited, part-time school of technology in North East. In addition, she wrote, more limited tech ed classes offered at local high schools number 2,600 students— including a special bio-medical education program at Perryville High School enrolling 171 students.
Moreover, Dr. Devine wrote, county and state funding of CCPS declines as overall student enrollment declines—with the result that specialized education, that is inherently more costly—suffers. And decisions in the past two years by the Cecil County Commissioners to reduce previous levels of financial support for overall CCPS programs have forced the loss of 157 employee positions. County funding reductions have slashed $2.8 million from CCPS, with the result that the operating budget of the schools is now lower than it was in Fiscal 2009. And while countywide student enrollment declined by 2.8 percent, local funding dropped by over 4 percent, she said.
Feehley asserted that CCPS was enamored of the Basell property, “like a couple looking for their first house and [they] fall in love with the first place they look and stop the search and eventually buy this no matter what the cost because they have gotten emotionally attached to that house.” Dr. Devine responded, “No comment.”
In his email to the EDC, Feehley also sought to compare the costs of potential renovations of the much newer, and recently renovated, Basell property to much higher costs for recent renovation of Elkton High School. (He made much the same points in talking with Cecil Times when he accompanied Broomell to the CCPS community discussion on the Basell property in July.)
In general, Feehley suggested that CCPS was under-estimating the costs of renovating the Basell property for school usage, based upon his review of the Elkton High renovations, despite the fact that Basell is a much newer building than the antiquated Elkton High property.
Dr. Devine provided detailed counter-data to Feehley’s assertions but also declared, “To our knowledge, Treasurer Feehley does not have the expertise or background in construction management or school construction” to support his assertions. She also said that his continued claims, despite having been given detailed information to the contrary, are “absurd.”
Feehley told Cecil Times that he is a “strong supporter” of vo-tech education in the county and was only raising his questions as part of his duties to ensure that county taxpayers get their money’s worth from government services. He said that empty seats and space in some county comprehensive high schools could be used to provide some votech programs in unused space at a lower cost.
CCPS officials pointed out that many specialized votech programs, such as welding or auto repair, require space and equipment that cannot be provided at local general education high schools.
In conclusion, Dr. Devine pondered the rationale for Feehley’s missive to the EDC, saying that CCPS was “disappointed that this information is presented as facts when we know that we have thoroughly answered each and every one. It makes one wonder about the true motive.”
Feehley’s CCPS missive, submitted at the behest of Commissioner Broomell, also comes at a time when Broomell has been advocating spending $100,000 a year to hire a county auditor, responding only to the new County Council when Charter government is put in place after the November election. Feehley will be out of a job when Charter government takes effect, and the county Treasurer’s position is eliminated.
Some Elkton wags have been calling the proposed County Council auditor position proposed by Broomell the “Bill Feehley Full Employment Act.”
[UPDATE: At its Wednesday 10/3/12 meeting, the Economic Development Commission agreed to write a letter to the County Commissioners supporting the CCPS moving forward with its 'due diligence' to explore the feasibility of acquisition of the Basell property for a new county vo-tech school. There was no disagreement and minimal discussion of the matter, sources said. And Commissioner Broomell arrived at the meeting over a half-hour late and the Basell property discussion was long over by the time she arrived, according to multiple sources.]