If the Washington County Board of Education Central Office were a prison, and some might argue that it is, the courts would declare its conditions to be an unconstitutional breach of inmates’ rights.
Spongy floors, asbestos, a terrarium’s worth of various and sundry spores flowering throughout, an odor commensurate with the day’s humidity and so on are all part of the package.
And that would just be the health and safety issues. For those with an eye on the bottom line, the building, cobbled together through the years, is a money pit. It’s already $5 million worth of maintenance in arrears, and the cost of keeping it together with duct tape and bailing twine will only increase.
Finally, superficial as it might seem, the Central Office does not convey a professional ambiance. Offices are tiny, corridors confusing and everything has a flimsy feel and look to it. Whether this affects recruitment is hard to say, but it sure doesn’t help.
All this said, however, you will never hear a peep about a new Central Office from any board member or top administrator for fear that it is political poison. Not just fear, actually; it’s the reality.
School systems are ripe targets for accusations of top-heaviness. Whether this is justified is impossible (for me) to say, although perhaps as a preemptive strike, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has indeed scaled down the administrative staff in his first year on the job.
Perhaps he heard the story of former Superintendent Betty Morgan’s washroom.
Morgan had a simple bathroom built into her office suite, similar, although less elaborate, than you would find for most any other private or public executive office.
It literally was as Spartan and small as the typical old gas station restroom that must be accessed with a greasy key on a stick. But by the time the public rumor mill had chewed it up and spit it out, this simple upgrade had grown into an elaborate Roman bath with fountains and hanging gardens and became a community symbol for the excesses of upper managers.
So flabbergasted was Morgan by the reaction that she made sure I got a personal tour of the facility. I strongly suspect that this was a journalistic first.
If a bathroom causes that much uproar, you can only imagine the community reaction to a new Central Office. And certainly all the ingrained fears of taking money out of the classroom and spending it on administrative luxury would apply. But, at some point, reality must interfere with prosaic metaphors.
Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but some time in the near future, the public should accept the idea that maintaining the old central shed will cost more than it’s worth — and that at several different levels, a new Central Office will be in the best interest of the kids and the community.
Certainly, this idea is not new; community leaders for years have entertained the idea of having the offices downtown. The idea would be to provide the school system with professional office space, while bringing better than 200 people to the part of the county that needs them most.
As much as the proposed new stadium is being sold as an economic driver, a downtown board office would likely have a better effect for the simple reason that the employees would be present during store hours. It still mystifies me how the baseball stadium will throw a lifeline to downtown businesses, most of which close two hours before game time.
The city center needs people with disposable incomes living and working downtown; it’s really as simple as that. Right now, we don’t have enough of either.
The board needs between 65,000 and 80,000 square feet, and money might be saved by finding a private developer to build or renovate a property and lease it to the board.
The amount of money that the Central Office needs now just to pay for overdue maintenance would pay for years’ worth of rent. And the bigger issue is that the longer the old offices are in use, the greater a liability they become. If taxpayers are aghast at the cost of new administrative offices, then they need to think long and hard about their tax money going toward legal settlements that can result from decaying buildings.
It is not to our credit that we don’t even allow ourselves to consider much-needed infrastructure for fear of political fallout. But this is the classic case of driving a clunker even though repair bills are costing more than a new car payment. We should start making plans for a new Central Office and, instead of criticizing administrators, thank them for holding out as long as they did.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.