Last spring, one of the most popular articles on my site was about Cecil County continuing to deny the necessary funding for school construction and major renovations. For me, the image of students at Conowingo Elementary setting out buckets in their classrooms to catch the rain coming in through a leaky roof was both shocking and heartbreaking and I couldn’t understand why the county allowed such a situation to get that far. (Fortunately, looking at the CCPS FY 2016 Construction Budget Request, the state of Maryland is funding a roof replacement project at Conowingo.)
But this is only one example of a much bigger problem.
Ongoing Water Issues at Leeds Elementary
During the last few weeks and months, parents, teachers, and students have attended Cecil County Council meetings to talk about the facilities needs at their schools and encourage adequate funding of the CCPS budget in general. We’ve heard about ongoing water issues at Leeds Elementary that have meant up to two weeks without running water and staff members having to pour buckets of water into toilets in order to flush waste.
We’ve also heard county council members direct parents to CCPS or tell speakers that they didn’t know what the solutions are for the issues at Leeds Elementary (the 23:31 mark of this audio). Who do they think they’re kidding? I’m sure the council read the same article I did in the Cecil Whig about the school system’s plans for closing Leeds and moving students into a renovated Kenmore Elementary.
It’s time for our elected officials to stand up for our schools and work in cooperation with CCPS instead of deflecting parents who aren’t familiar with the budget process back to CCPS only to learn that the county controls the funding for such projects.
Facilities Concerns at Thomson Estates
Leeds isn’t the only school with issues. At last week’s county council meeting a mother from Thomson Estates Elementary (2:45 mark of this audio) told the council about the leaking roof and HVAC systems that left students wearing shorts in the winter and coats in the summer. (Mind you, these aren’t teenagers who dress however they please regardless of the weather; these are small children in kindergarten through fifth grade.)
Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan
Each year, Cecil County Public Schools is required to create various reports regarding the current state of its facilities as well as future needs. They create a 5-year capital improvement program that details the needs for new construction, renovation, and replacement of schools. Once created, the plan must be submitted for approval by state and local (county) agencies. Such a plan helps ensure that necessary and appropriate facilities are available and that an insurmountable backlog of projects doesn’t build up over time. CCPS also is required to develop an educational facilities master plan that looks at the facilities needs 10 years down the road. Sounds reasonable enough…plan your work, work your plan.
Comprehensive planning is necessary because there is typically a 4 or 5-year timeline for a school to be constructed or renovated with a multitude of approvals for the specification, design, and construction.
Required: Long-term Planning and Commitment to Projects
Unfortunately, while the school system puts together plans to address its facilities needs for five or 10 years into the future, Cecil County government has repeatedly deferred approval for much needed projects and, at least in the last two budget seasons I’ve been following, the county government seems to treat the school system’s requests as exorbitant while funding other projects in the county that many see as a luxury.
Here’s the bottom line:
Cecil County, the funding for maintaining, renovating, and building school facilities is your responsibility. CCPS depends on state and county funding and has no taxing authority. Further, for each large capital project that the county denies funding, there is generally some amount of state funding that is being left on the table (at least prior to a new governor taking office in January).
How About That Strategic Plan?
I’d like to refer you to the Fiscal Stability section of the Cecil County Strategic Plan adopted last spring:
GOAL 4: Forecast and align projected revenues and capital expenditure needs over a five-year period to strengthen the linkages between community infrastructure and the financial capacity of the County.
4.1 Adhere to statutory and self-imposed debt affordability criteria.
4.2 Provide priority consideration to the funding needs associated with the County’s Strategic Plan.
4.3 Fund the backlog of deferred maintenance projects within acceptable limits.
Hmmm. Let’s see:
- Replacements for Chesapeake City and Gilpin Manor Elementary Schools were requested as far back as FY 2013 (3/25/15 edit: Gilpin Manor was actually included in the FY 2004 CIP) and have been repeatedly deferred. In fact, according a proposed capital plan from Cecil County Executive Tari Moore for FY 2016, the Gilpin Manor project wouldn’t start until FY 2017 which would push completion to FY 2020 and the Chesapeake City project wouldn’t start until FY 2018 with completion in FY 2021.
- Kenmore Elementary which needs to be renovated before the students from Leeds Elementary can move there? The start date for that project would be moved out to FY 2019 with completion in FY 2022. That’s seven more years of water issues?!?
- Renovations at Thomson Estates Elementary would be pushed off until somewhere in the far distant future.
That’s some very strategic planning right there.
Buckets: Sadly, They’re Not Just for Conowingo Elementary
If Cecil County can’t find a way to adequately fund its public schools, the least they can do is provide each student in the county with his or her own bucket which, depending on the needs of the specific school, could be useful for situations including catching rain water from roof leaks or carrying water for toilet flushing.
County Executive Tari Moore is preparing her budget recommendations now for presentation to the Cecil County Council in early April. Once the council receives the budget, they can only cut funding, not increase it. The time to contact our elected officials is now.
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