As many have heard through local news outlets, on Tuesday, Sept. 18, the Washington County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to acquire a 16.5 acre tract of land for the new West City elementary school. While The Herald-Mail did publish that the county chose this property because the infrastructure costs of this tract were $1.2 million less than the next desirable property option, there are a few facts that were not shared in the news that I would like to address.
A parcel of land could not have been bought for this project before the final decision of the Washington County Board of Education was made to close Winter Street and Conococheague Elementary schools. The decision could not have taken place until the BOE had a chance to hear from the public through formal hearings regarding the possible closing of the two elementary schools. The BOE ultimately voted to close the schools on Aug. 7, 2012. Even though the property search for the project began in 2010, the county would not have been permitted to buy the land without an approved intended use, as the county is not in the practice of banking land.
Additionally, the commissioners needed to wait until the state approved a BOE request to certify the property as acceptable.
As expected, a proper search, meeting rigorous criteria, took months to complete. While collaborating with the school system, a committee comprised of BOE, city, and county staff researched 22 sites, and ultimately narrowed it down to three parcels that would be suitable for the project.
Based on objective criteria, three final sites referred to as Site 11, 19, and 22, all located near Hagers Crossing Drive and Garland Groh Boulevard, were selected as the top three options to efficiently and effectively meet the school construction project needs. Through much negotiation, Site 19, the lowest-cost option to the taxpayer for construction of this school, was able to be acquired.
The county negotiated down an asking price for Site 19 from $2.4 million to approximately $1.6 million.
The site chosen has more infrastructure in place as compared to the two other preferred parcels, Site 22 and Site 11, that were selected. When analyzing the total picture, the county needed to insure that overall cost was the primary consideration leading to the most fiscally sound decision.
The next most desirable property, Site 22, was priced at $2 million and would have required $1.2 million more in infrastructure development costs. Site 22 was almost identical in size, and in general proximity of Site 19, so this property would have needed to be purchased for only $400,000 dollars to equal the value of Site 19 ($1.2 million infrastructure + $.4 million purchase = $1.6 million). That would be lower than even the original assessment for Site 19, and not near what other properties in the area, much less the Site 22 price, would bring.
Anything above the $400,000 mark made Site 22 more expensive than Site 19, and the seller of Site 22 was asking $2 million.
Another consideration factored into the decision was that the Site 19 location may become eligible for other grants during the construction and operational phases of the school, saving even more taxpayer dollars.
Fortunately, the total approved package was negotiated to a floor level that saved substantial cost to the project and the taxpayer, with overall cost below the next two comparable, less desirable, sites, and allowing the project to move forward to keep cost lower in a time when construction prices are rising.
The Washington County Board of Education, after conclusion of required public hearings, made a decision to close two older schools serving this general area and consolidate into one new, more up-to-date facility that not only costs less to operate, but most importantly provides more educational opportunities to the youth that would attend the school.
This decision saves over $10.2 million over the alternative of rehabilitating the current schools being closed, and that would still be constricted by several factors. This specific site also reduces overall transportation costs and the consolidation reduces administrative overhead.
Given the BOE decision, and a decision on where such a school should be located given the evaluation factors found in the report, negotiations began for the top three sites ultimately leading to the purchase of the number one and least costly site. Planning will now start for the facility, and a final timeline will be developed by the board of education for construction and opening of the new school.
While speculation can arise as to why the property was previously purchased when the BOE was close to approving the site, and can certainly be unnecessarily harsh when looking from the outside in, our board was tasked to make the least costly decision with the information and options available and permitted at the time. Our goal is to move a critical educational project forward that benefits our children — and that is exactly what we accomplished.
To view details of the study, sites and more, visit: www.washco-md.net/public_works/WestCityElementarySchoolSiteSelectionStudyReportFinalPublicReleaseMay22201.pdf.
William B. McKinley is a member of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.