What to Do About Wicomico’s Crumbling Schools

Last week I asked the question, “Should Wicomico County borrow more money?”.  This was primarily in reference to the swearing in of a new County Executive and County Council and council president Matt Holloway acted responsibly by pulling the item from the agenda. Yet, a greater underlying problem lurks beneath the surface for Wicomico taxpayers.  How does the county provide a decent education for the children of Wicomico County and still live within its means?

West Salisbury Elementary School has been slated for rebuilding.  There is also discussion by the Wicomico County Board of Education (WCBOE) to merge West Salisbury and Charles Chipman Elementary Schools.  Why do we need a new school?  Some may argue that we don’t, but the fact that West Salisbury has been denied any meaningful renovation since it opened in the early 1960’s means that a new school may have to be built.

West Salisbury is Bennett Middle all over again.  Don’t renovate.  Don’t maintain the physical plant more than absolutely necessary in hopes of building a new school.  Evidently, building (first) and renovating schools looks good on a superintendent’s resume.  In addition, the state pays for a hefty share of new school construction but doesn’t cover renovation costs.  As I have noted earlier, Wicomico County can expect a decline in state aid  (and possibly direct aid to the county’s schools).  Currently Wicomico County pays less than 25% of the cost of the county’s schools.  Compare this to 35% in Dorchester and over 75% in Worcester.  In addition, Wicomico will no longer have the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to look to.  So what should Wicomico County, and its new County Executive, do?

IF the state’s School Construction Committee approves a new West Salisbury school, building a new school may be best for Wicomico’s taxpayers.  This is particularly the case if West Salisbury and Charles Chipman are to be merged.  However, the county government needs to put its foot down with the WCBOE regarding school maintenance.  It will cost the county a little more in the short term but will save taxpayers over the long term.  Schools need to be adequately maintained and the response can’t always be to build a new school.  If the WCBOE refuses to adopt a serious maintenance plan then the County Executive can simply refuse to provide funding above maintenance of effort (MOE), which is required by state law.

It’s evident that more funding for Wicomico public schools is not the most politically popular stance.  However, I take the view that our elected officials should LEAD, not pander.  Forget the argument that a county’s schools are an economic driver (there are other factors that far outrank the perception of a county’s schools), we as citizens have a moral duty to educate our children.  The WCBOE probably wastes more money than any other part of Wicomico County government.  It’s also the biggest agency.  (Does anyone believe that there isn’t money being wasted in the Sheriff’s department, the county Public Works department, etc.?) If the WCBOE showed the electorate that it was serious about cutting waste and fraud, the voters might be willing to pony up more funding.  While there has been some improvement over the last few years, the WCBOE still seems to view the taxpayers like a slot machine.  Bob Culver and the new County Council should place the burden on the WCBOE to show more concern for the hard working taxpayers of Wicomico County.  They also need to start cutting costs elsewhere.

There are places to cut spending.  There are ways to adequately fund Wicomico County’s schools.  The question is – Will Wicomico County’s elected leaders act … or will they just continue with status quo?  The status quo is a route towards disaster.

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