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Worcester County officials discuss options for Buckingham Elementary

Local plans will have to change if Worcester County wants state funding for a new Buckingham Elementary School.

Buckingham classroom

Buckingham Elementary School students are pictured in a classroom on the first day of the 2023-24 academic year.
Photo courtesy Worcester County Public Schools

By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor

Local plans will have to change if Worcester County wants to receive state funding for a new Buckingham Elementary School.

The head of the Interagency Commission on School Construction (IAC) outlined four possible scenarios last week, none of which was a new standalone Buckingham Elementary School. Alex Donahue, executive director of the IAC, said his agency wanted to work with Worcester County officials to come up with a solution. 

“The four we’ve laid out are what we see as viable possibilities,” he said. “What we’re hoping is all three parties will look at the needs and the dynamics here…”

Donahue and other representatives of the IAC met with the Worcester County Commissioners and the Worcester County Board of Education last week to discuss ways the county could get state funding for construction of a new Buckingham Elementary School. Donahue said that just as the local capacity for funding was declining, budgets were tighter at the state as well. He said inflation and school construction costs were up.

“The amount of capital renewal work that can be done today versus 20 years ago is much much smaller for the same nominal dollars,” he said. “This is making things much tougher.”

Because of that, he said the IAC was leveraging all available resources to maximize its impact across the state. In Worcester County, while about half of the schools are approaching the point of needing replacement or renovation, the average school in Worcester is 27 years old. Statewide, the average is 31. Donahue pointed out that in addition to condition, another issue the IAC looks at is utilization of space. In Worcester, classrooms aren’t as full as they are elsewhere.

Donahue said the IAC had developed four potential options for providing state funding to support a new Buckingham. Those include combining Buckingham and Berlin Intermediate School, replacing both Buckingham and BIS back to back, moving sixth grade to Stephen Decatur Middle School and replacing Buckingham as a pre-k through fifth-grade school or moving sixth grade to the middle school and converting Buckingham, Showell and Ocean City elementary schools back into pre-k through fifth grade facilities. Those options could result in $30-$37 million in state funding.

“The IAC is not pushing demanding directing any specific solution or option,” he said. “We are putting out these different scenarios for discussion because we believe this has to be a three way partnership discussion to id what’s going to fit best and what’s going to obtain the best return on investment in every given situation.”

Commissioner Jim Bunting asked if there would be any state funding for Buckingham if it was pursued as a standalone project. Donahue said there would not be state funding in that scenario. 

Superintendent Lou Taylor said his concern with doing Buckingham and BIS back to back was that it would bump replacement of Snow Hill Elementary School and Pocomoke Elementary School. He also asked about funding for systemic improvements. He said in the past, the school system didn’t ask for help with smaller projects, opting instead to seek money for major projects like school construction. 

Donahue said the IAC wanted to see all requests from local education agencies (LEAs). 

“Increasingly over the last couple of years some LEAs have been giving us longer and longer requests,” he said. “That has helped us significantly in making the case that we’re not getting enough appropriations.  We can show more of the need. When the need is self limited….then we don’t have as much tangible request evidence and we can’t see as much of the need picture.”

He said the school system’s capital improvement plan needed to show its true needs. 

“Second, when it comes to the major projects like a Buckingham, we would like you to share with us your expected major project asks much more deeply earlier on so we can see not just the one you’re looking at next but all of them. So we can talk with you about which solutions might leverage more eligibility.”

In fiscal year 2023, the school system got none of the IAC’s roughly $400 million in funding. In fiscal year 2024, the school system got about $62,000 out of about $600 million in funding.

“We were able to go farther down a number of school districts’ lists than normal,” he said. “Worcester County, because your request list was so short we didn’t have additional projects from you we could just fund with those extra dollars . So yes there is a way to be better positioned for future years.”

Bunting asked how the county could prepare when it never had any idea how much state funding it would get. Donahue said there was no simple solution.

“The challenge here is that the state program is an assistance program that is to add onto projects where eligible to the local funding,” he said. “The base responsibility for the school facilities is on the county and what most counties do is they set up an approach with the school district so there is a clarity around what the fiscal capacity is.”

Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young asked if the state wanted Worcester to have larger class sizes.

“Not necessarily but there is an issue there about affordability of your facilities based on how you utilize them,” Donahue said. “There are a lot of nuances there. The state doesn’t prescribe particular class sizes however for fairness IAC uses state rated capacity which is based on a standard class size and we fund all the LEAs the same. If an LEA wants to run smaller class sizes the IAC doesn’t say you can’t or shouldn’t but the IAC cannot equitably fund one district for much smaller classes sizes than another district because that would pull more of the limited scarce state dollars to the districts that choose to fund smaller class sizes versus the ones that can’t afford to.”

When asked how he saw Buckingham moving forward, Donahue said he wanted the IAC to work with local leaders.

“I would say the mechanism is up to you and board of education to determine how you want to work the conversation,” he said. “The IAC is ready to join in that three way conversation.”

This story appears in the April 18, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.