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Worcester board of ed discusses latest roadblocks to state funding for Buckingham

Members of the Worcester County Board of Education recently discussed financial roadblocks to a desire to replace Buckingham Elementary School and new planned safety implementations.

BES classroom

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

By Tara Fischer, Staff Writer 

The Worcester County Board of Education discussed financial roadblocks to Buckingham Elementary School’s replacement project and new planned safety implementations. 

At a meeting April 4 with the Worcester County Commissioners and the school board, Executive Director of the Interagency Commission on School Construction Alex Donahue said that to uphold equity in the distribution of school construction support, the group could not provide Worcester County with additional funds to build larger schools to maintain small class sizes. The policy leaves no state money for the Buckingham Elementary replacement project.

At a board of ed meeting April 16, Worcester County Public Schools Facilities Planner Joe Price displayed a chart detailing the construction of Ocean City Elementary School and Showell Elementary School to provide context for the dilemma. The presentation examined state and local funding participation, school sizes, and regional and state-rated capacities. 

Price’s breakdown showed that the state approved constructing a 47,080-square-foot SES, completed in 2020. The finalized building exceeded 102,000 square feet to avoid the implementation of portable classrooms. Local funds accounted for 78.3% of the total cost, which was $48,518,782. 

WCPS Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert maintained that based on enrollment projections and capacity estimations, the IAC has determined there are open seats at the other elementary schools, which they call “adjacent” facilities. The state will not fund a new Buckingham Elementary School given the extra room. 

“They are penalizing us twice,” Tolbert said. “Once, by not giving us enough money to build increased square footage, and then the second time by not giving us any money for Buckingham because of the adjacent seats…Buckingham Elementary, our highest poverty school at the northern end with the highest minority population, is getting treated inequitably by the state through their funding formula.” 

Former WCPS Superintendent and current board member Jon Andes argued that if the school system limited the expansion of SES to what the state recommended, students would be “crammed into every corner.” The state-rated capacity for Showell was 850, while the local estimation hovered around 640. 

“If we had built the six projects that I was involved in at state-rated capacity, we would have portables at every single school,” Andes said. “It makes absolutely no sense. It is counterintuitive why you would open a new school and then put portables out back.” 

The IAC’s capacity evaluation was based on a class size of 23 to 25 students. WCPS prefers to limit this number to 18 pupils per room. 

The board has decided to continue advocating for state funds to replace Buckingham. Andes offered a motion “to go to the IAC to appeal for a change in their policy for funding the school system at state-rated capacity, which they have done for both Ocean City Elementary and Showell. We want to take not only an appeal with the board, but we want to include our county commissioners and our state delegation in that appeal.” The gesture was approved. 

WCPS Maintenance and Operations Manager Sam Slacum was also present at the April 16 meeting to request approval for additional projects, like replacing the fire alarm system at Berlin Intermediate School. The update is expected to cost $223,346 and will include the ability to announce live and prerecorded messages for fire evacuations and shelter-in-place. The funding for the initiative is being provided by the local government and is scheduled for summer 2024. 

Additionally, WCPS Coordinator of Safety and Security Shawn Goddard sought the board of education’s support to secure front doors and vestibules with access control and door intercoms at Stephen Decatur Middle School, Stephen Decatur High School, OCES, BIS, Buckingham Elementary School, SES, Worcester Technical High School, Snow Hill High School, Snow Hill Middle School, Cedar Chapel Special School, Pocomoke High School, Pocomoke Middle School, and the board’s central office. 

The project will include exterior door cameras with two-way intercom capabilities to screen visitors safely before allowing them access to the building. The local Worcester County government will fund it with $224,687. Implementation is scheduled for summer 2024. 

This story appears in the April 25, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.