Budget uncertainty forces 1-year delay of new school

St. Charles High moves to back burner on vote

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Charles County Board of Education members voted to delay the opening of St. Charles High School one year to August 2014.

Board members met Monday evening to make a decision on the $74 million high school set to be built on Piney Church Road in Waldorf.

St. Charles would be the seventh high school in the county, which school officials said is needed to eliminate overcrowding in other schools.

Charles County commissioners told school board members that money to fund some of the state's portion of the bill to be paid back later is not available at this time.

School board Chairwoman Roberta S. Wise read a letter from the county commissioners Monday during the school board's work session.

In the letter, the commissioners addressed the five points brought to them by the school board last week regarding the high school and future funding.

Those five points the school board wanted consideration or a possible commitment on were to secure the property for a year; to agree to help fund the cost increase from inflation since the state would not; to not attempt to change the design of the school; to agree to assist with operating costs; and assist if there were any emergencies that would affect health or safety of children.

School officials have estimated the cost to secure the property at about $1 million and inflation costs could increase about $6 million.

School spokeswoman Katie O'Malley-Simpson said school officials are not aware of any other county having a similar situation of accepting state money for a school building project, breaking ground on the project and then having to delay the project. While she said other counties have had similar funding troubles and have had to delay projects, school officials are unaware that any of those projects from other counties have actually broken ground as is the case with the St. Charles High School project.

The commissioners said they would work with the board to come up with a plan to address annual operating costs. They acknowledged the risk of higher costs and committed to look at project costs over the next few years and, along with school staff, to identify budget savings that could be dedicated to the new school. The letter states the county would work with school staff to work out plans to minimize costs of securing the property and pledges to work with staff to provide immediate action in the event of an emergency.

The letter emphasizes that the commissioners were unaware of ever discussing a redesign of the high school and states, "We are surprised that you requested such a guarantee.

"We believe that working as a team the challenges the high school presents can be met," the letters states.

All five commissioners signed the letter.

Board member Pamela A. Pedersen acknowledged past disputes with previous county commissioners Monday by saying, "The past is the past."

Pedersen said she believed that with a one-year delay, the high school project can stay on the books and it can move forward.

Board member Michael Lukas questioned school system staff on the feasibility of opening the school with fewer students than projected.

School Superintendent James E. Richmond said that would be possible provided the school system did allow for some growth.

Lukas asked about the state portion of the bill in the event that the school was delayed more than a year.

Chuck L. Wineland, assistant superintendent for supporting services, said he was under the impression the state would still fund the same amount — 77 percent — even if the school is delayed longer than a year.

Board member Patricia Bowie expressed concern about a "worst-case scenario" in which if commissioners were still in a position where they lacked resources to fund operating costs, the school system might resort to having to cut a projected 200 staff positions to open and operate the school.

Richmond said that would only be the option if the school system were to have to fund operating costs completely on its own.

Board member Donald M. Wade said that the school board and staff have worked hard for several years and that backing off the project would not be an option.

Robert D. Harlan, St. Charles resident and former school board candidate, urged the school board during the public comment portion of the meeting not to delay the high school saying that the board had worked diligently to get to where it is today.

"You need to stick to the plan to open in 2013," he said.

On the other side of that argument was Elizabeth Brown, president of the Education Association for Charles County, the teachers union.

"We need to wait until we can afford it," she said.

Wade said later in the meeting that he was willing to take a risk if it meant the high school would come to fruition.

"I'll stand up. I'm not afraid of a risk. I'm not afraid of a fight. I always go in with the mindset that I'm going to win," he said.

Pedersen moved to delay the high school one year, and the motion passed with five in favor and two abstentions.

Board members Jennifer S. Abell and Bowie abstained.

"I don't believe in 2014 we'll have the funds," Abell said in a later interview.

With the opening of the high school set one year later, school board members now will work to decide if the new opening date will affect the construction timeline.