Frederick County school construction plan splits school board, commissioners -- Gazette.Net







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When it comes to school construction, Frederick County School officials think they need to be advocates for the actual needs of the system and seek funding for all the schools struggling with overcrowding or in dire need of renovation.

But members of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, which must provide the funding for all of the projects, are concerned that such an aggressive approach is unrealistic in the face of the current economy.

In a letter to the Frederick County Board of Education on Wednesday, commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) criticized the school system’s proposed 10-year facilities master plan for being too “unrealistic” and “overly aggressive.”

The master plan includes the school system’s proposed six-year fiscal 2014-2019 Capital Improvements Program, which lists proposed construction projects totaling $305.3 million. Of that request, $183.4 million is county funding.

In the current poor economy, the county cannot fund the timeline of construction and renovation projects in the proposed plan, Young said in the letter.

“It should be reflective of the current economic status of the county,” Young said Friday. “... When we communicate something to the public, we want to communicate something that is real.”

Young submitted the letter as his comment on the school system’s proposed facilities master plan, which the school board is expected to approve Sept. 26. In the letter, Young asked the school board to review the proposed plan and come up with a more realistic school construction schedule.

But school board President Angie Fish defended the facilities plan proposal and said it simply outlines the real needs of the school system.

“Our job is not to advocate for the needs of developers, our job is to advocate for the needs of our students,” Fish said Friday.

She noted, however, that she is not opposed to development, as long as it is accompanied by the appropriate infrastructure.

The master plan was the subject of a public hearing before the school board Wednesday.

The school system’s proposed 2012 year master plan, which outlines and prioritizes school construction and modernization projects for the next 10 years, is the first step in the process school officials use to obtain funding every year.

Using birth rates to estimate future enrollment, the master plan projects that in the next decade the school system anticipates an increase of 5,753 students.

The school system staff has presented the proposed plan to the school board, which held a public hearing on the plan Wednesday. The board must forward the final plan to the county commissioners in the beginning of October.

But Young said that the county cannot possibly fund that request and has asked the school board to revise the plan and come up with a more realistic schedule for school construction.

“We have been aggressive,” Young said. “We moved up Lincoln, we moved up Oakdale Elementary, we moved up North Frederick....”

The county still is waiting on the state to reimburse it for $23 million that the commissioners have forward-funded to support school construction, Young said.

And with the county being pressed to provide money for teacher pensions, it will be more difficult to find funding for school construction in the general fund, Young said.

School construction money comes from the general fund in the commissioners’ operating budget, impact fees and new school mitigation fees for developers.

To help fund school construction, Young said he wants the county to build up to 1,200 homes per year.

“We don’t need more taxes, we need more taxpayers,” he said. “... Developers are no longer part of the problem, they are part of the solution.”

Young said he would be open to sitting down with the school board and developing a more realistic schedule for construction.

Fish could not say Friday if the board would be open to the idea. She said school board members could bring it up as part of their master plan discussion Sept. 26.

Although Fish said she agrees with Young that the state should step up and reimburse the county for funding construction projects, she noted that the plan helps the school system stay prepared for future growth.

“If we are going to keep developing, we need to ensure that we are prepared for that,” she said.

Currently, 39 of the county’s 66 schools are at least 30 years old with major building systems such as boilers, chillers and roofs reaching the end of their life expectancies.

Some of the parents who spoke at the school board hearing Wednesday raised the modernization issue.

Julie Marker, president of the PTA Council of Frederick County, thanked the school board for completing major projects such as Lincoln Elementary. But she also urged school officials to keep pushing modernization of old schools, such as North Frederick Elementary and Frederick High schools.

“We are grateful for the commitment you have made,” she told the board. “My fear is that our renovation and modernization needs will be put on the back burner because of new seats.”

Jana Sheffer, president of the Frederick High School PTSA, reminded the school board of the needs of 73-year-old Frederick High School. The aging building has many problems, from hallways and stairs that are too narrow and can be unsafe, to a cafeteria that is too small, Sheffer said.

Although the school has received $200,000 to start a feasibility study, parents and advocates are afraid that it may be pushed back by projects for new schools, which typically are funded quicker by the state.

“I appreciate your support, I just ask that you keep us front and center,” Sheffer said.