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Decade of Neglect

The Results of a Decade of Neglect

Updated 2/13/17

You don’t have to attend too many budget hearings or council meetings before you recognize the ceaseless cries of “The county needs to live within its means.” The howls come from a relatively small group who vocally demand that the county cut “out of control” spending. It’s like reciting lines from a bad movie you’ve seen many times but just can’t resist watching when it’s on TV.

Yawn. Until those demanding “fiscal conservatism” roll up their sleeves, start reading the financial documents, and cite specifics, these are just opinions. And you can’t effectively run a business, a county government, or a school system on opinions.

But we do agree on one point

Imagine how shocked I was to realize I agree with them on one point: Cecil County hasn’t been living within its means. For too long the county has been neglecting some of its obligations because it couldn’t figure out how to cover all of its expenses. Adequate schools, well-maintained roads, and properly equipped emergency services aren’t extravagances, they are the cost of living in modern society.

During the FY16 budget season, there was hot debate over necessities: replacement AEDs OR emergency communications systems OR long neglected capital projects at county schools.

We aren’t choosing toppings for a pizza–it shouldn’t be an either/or decision. In many cases ALL the requests are necessary.

At different points in that budget cycle, both (former) County Executive Tari Moore and (current) Council Member Alan McCarthy remarked that Cecil County needs to start addressing mandates that aren’t currently being met regarding emergency radio communications (deficiencies in that system made the news again that spring), water treatment, and school services.

Cecil County, ALL of these items are our responsibility whether we individually agree with the mandate or not. It’s not a matter of IF we meet these needs, it’s a matter of how. The county can choose how it plans to comply with and fund these programs but they must be implemented.
Unfortunately, for the last decade, Cecil County has neglected sufficient funding for capital improvements so there is now a backlog of expensive but still critical needs. One glaring example is the Cecil County Public Schools’ list of deferred maintenance projects that now totals over $49 million–up $5 million over last year.

How does CCPS determine facilities needs?

Public school facilities in Maryland are overseen by the Board of Public Works (BPW), Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC), and the  Public School Construction Program (PSCP)  Those entities have a:

“…strong interest in the proper maintenance of Maryland’s public school facilities. For all types of facilities, the useful life of the structure is greatly extended through a preventive maintenance program that protects the asset and corrective maintenance activities that address emergent deficiencies. Good maintenance defers the need for repairs and major renovation, and reduces the cost of renovation when it is eventually needed. Regular maintenance ensures that the operation of the building, including its energy efficiency, will remain optimal even under adverse weather conditions. For schools in particular, good maintenance helps to protect the health of young students and establishes an environment in which the focus of administrators, teachers, and the students themselves can remain on learning, rather than on the building. “ PSCP Annual Report

Each fall CCPS is required to prepare a Comprehensive Maintenance Plan (CMP) detailing the maintenance activities that are projected to occur in the next 10 years. CCPS is also required to prepare a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) detailing current and future major renovations and new buildings. The CMP and CIP must be submitted to the State Public School Construction Program for review and approval.

What are “Deferred Maintenance” Projects?

Projects on the deferred maintenance list are too costly to complete from funds in the annual maintenance budget and end up as part of the CCPS capital budget request. Unfortunately, few projects have received county funding in recent years so the list continues to grow as CCPS does the best it can to address projects on the list with the available funds or the projects expand to become a large capital request (like when “repair” becomes “replacement”).
Lest you think the list of deferred maintenance projects is the result of some failing of CCPS, the state praised the school system for its work in the Maintenance of Maryland’s Public School Buildings FY 2014 Annual Report published on Jan. 15, 2016:

“Five schools were inspected in January 2014. Original existing square footage at these schools dates from 1937 to 2005, with adjusted building ages ranging from 47 to 11 years at the time of inspection. All of the inspected schools were first constructed before 1980 and have received various additions and renovations. The survey results demonstrate the good maintenance practices and outstanding custodial care that the IAC has come to expect in Cecil County. The school receiving the lowest score and having the oldest adjusted age, the Cecil School of Technology, is scheduled to have its program moved in Fall 2015 to a newly renovated facility in Elkton, Maryland. This is significant because of the innovative approach CCPS took to meet their need for an expanded career and technology program: rather than building a new facility or renovating the existing school, they purchased and renovated a commercial research and development facility that came with a high-bay area, advanced science laboratories, conference space, and a sophisticated electrical system. The entire project cost considerably less than a replacement school. Sited in an industrial park, the building will facilitate alignments between the educational programs and industry sponsors.” 

Small Capital Budget Requests Have Gone Unfunded

Now that we have some background on maintenance and capital improvements, let’s talk about the history of a few of the projects in the capital budget request.

The school system’s capital request is divided into the following categories:

  • Large capital projects which are funded jointly by the state and county
  • Small capital projects which are the responsibility of the county

Since the state provides roughly 60% of the funding for large capital projects, let’s focus on the small capital projects.

A Grand Slam of Dilapidated Tennis Courts

During the discussions for the FY 2016 Cecil County Budget, the sad state of the tennis courts at three high schools was a frequent topic. The CCPS budget request included $375,000 for the replacement of tennis courts at Rising Sun, Elkton, and North East High Schools. But these projects shouldn’t have been news to anyone following county budgets because tennis courts have been a part of the request for several years:

  • Rising Sun High School tennis courts Funded in FY17 budget
    • Requested since 2013. The FY 2017 request will be its 5th year on the list.
  • North East High School tennis courts
    • Requested since 2014
  • Elkton High School tennis courts
    • Requested since 2014. Not included in FY 2017 request.

Replacement of the tennis courts at Perryville High School are included in the FY 2017 request and were in the request in FY 2015.

That means tennis courts at four of the county’s five high schools need to be replaced. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that CCPS may find some economies of scale in replacing them all at once.

Cecil Manor Elementary School Needs to be Connected to Municipal Water 

Since 2014, CCPS has requested funding to connect Cecil Manor Elementary School to nearby municipal water lines. What’s the downside to the school remaining on well water? From a dollars and cents perspective, local well water tends to speed the deterioration of HVAC eqauipment, one of the most expensive systems in any building. From a water quality perspective, higher than normal nitrate levels are reported at the school from time to time. This contamination is mostly due to nearby agricultural activity.
CCPS funded this with the BTOP discount

Long and Bumpy Roads

Without adequate funding for maintenance and capital projects, CCPS estimates it would cost upwards of $1 million just to put a dent in the school system’s paving needs. Most concerning is the deterioration that is evident in the bus loops–spots where heavy buses drop off and pick up hundreds of students 180 days a year. The bus loops at BoManor Thomson Estates, and Kenmore Elementary are especially damaged. (A budget amendment in FY 2014 funded some paving at Perryville, North East, and Rising Sun High schools. CCPS worked in cooperation with Cecil County Department of Public Works to complete those projects as cost effectively as possible.)

Cecil County, the Schools are YOUR Responsibility

CCPS is a component unit of Cecil County government with no taxing authority so paying for maintenance and improvements is largely the responsibility of the county. Choosing to continue this trend of minimal funding for small capital projects is a choice to disregard the county’s obligation to maintain facilities built using taxpayer funds.
Below is the small capital budget request CCPS submitted to Cecil County for FY17. I’ve noted which line items were funded and the source of the funding. The projects in the request are prioritized, with the most important at the top. The county funded the first two lines because they are multi-year obligations–then they skipped over quite a few mechanical systems requests to fund tennis courts at Rising Sun High School. I’m not denying that the RSHS tennis courts required resurfacing. I even went out to see the conditions for myself.
Fortunately, CCPS applied for and received a discount of $400,000 on the BTOP program and used that money to fund the next three projects on the list.
Cecil County Public Schools FY17 small capital budget vs funding
The projects on this list won’t go away–if you ignore them they will only become bigger, more expensive projects. And at $11 million, this list represents less than one quarter of the total projects on the $49 million deferred maintenance list.
CCPS small capital budget request vs funding, 2015-2017
It’s time to face the facts and start funding capital projects again so CCPS can begin to whittle away at this list.

Tell the County You Support Adequate Capital Funding in the FY 2018 Cecil County Budget

New Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy is now working with his team to draft the budget that he will send to the County Council in on March 31. Once the County Council receives the budget, they can either approve it as proposed or cut from it. The council can’t add to the budget so we need to voice our expectations NOW.

How can you advocate for public education in Cecil County?

There are several ways:

  • Attend the County Executive’s town hall on Wednesday at 6 PM
  • Email County Executive Alan McCarthy at amccarthy@ccgov.org & Director of Administration Al Wein at awein@ccgov.org
  • Call the County Executive at (410) 996-5203 or Mr. Wein at (410) 996-8300

If snail mail is your thing, you can send that to the County Administration Building at 200 Chesapeake Blvd., Suite 2110, Elkton, MD 21921

No matter which method of communication you prefer, show your support for adequate public education funding in Cecil County.

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