By Cindy Hoffman, Staff Writer
(Nov. 9. 2023) Main Street in Berlin was filled with marching parents, teachers and students chanting “Build the bear!” last Friday evening during a protest over lack of state funding for the construction of a new Buckingham Elementary School (BES).
Hundreds of people attended the march, carrying signs reading “It’s time to use our outside voices,” and “teachers, staff and students are not political pawns.”
Buckingham Elementary School, which was built in 1978, with no major renovations or additions in 45 years. It is the largest Title I school in Worcester County, with 60 percent of students coming from homes of poverty and qualifying for free and reduced-price meals.
It is currently using five portable classrooms and four instructional spaces in its media center. The bus parking area is not designed for bus traffic, making for a growing safety concern at the school, according to a letter to Gov. Wes Moore from State Senator Mary Beth Carozza (R-38).
Last October, a capital improvement program was submitted to the state for the 2024 fiscal year. The package asked for and received funding approval from the Interagency Committee of School Construction for planning and design costs.
But later the Buckingham project was declared ineligible for cost-sharing because additional classroom space is available at other county schools with small class sizes.
On Oct. 17, the Worcester County Commissioners voted to pause the new Buckingham Elementary School construction project due to the lack of funds.
“The commissioners were unaware, even as plans moved forward, that no state funding was available,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said. “The loss of state matching funds places a significant burden on county taxpayers, who would shoulder one hundred percent of planning and construction costs if the county proceeded with the project as currently proposed.”
The county allocated $1.6 million in FY22 surplus funding for the project. The board of education reallocated the county funding to cover design costs, and the project was set to go to the bond market in FY25.
Bertino said that the school board needed to talk with the state and see how the project might proceed, stressing that the county taxpayers would not pick up the bill for the entire cost of Buckingham.
“We’re already disadvantaged because of the lack of funding that the state provides to us for the ongoing operation of education here,” Bertino said. “I don’t see how we can go forward with the lack of state funding.”