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Board of Education caps loan amount on school for the arts

July 31, 2007|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN - The Barbara Ingram School for the Arts will open, Washington County Board of Education members assured the public Monday.

Working to stop the spread of rumors that the project was stalled or stopped, the board voted unanimously to move forward, but with some changes to funding details. Monday's vote marked the second deviation from original funding plans for the school that is scheduled to open in 2009.

The board voted 7-0 to adopt a resolution that includes a cap on the amount of money that can be borrowed for the downtown Hagerstown arts school. Financing will not exceed $8,324,000, with an interest rate of no more than 6 percent, according to the resolution. Original estimates included about $11.5 million in borrowed money for the school.

"The School for the Arts is alive and well," Board Member William H. Staley said. "And all board members here are in favor of this. The sticking point for this is how to finance the School for the Arts."

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In March, the board voted to fund the school through the Maryland Economic Development Corp., but rescinded that vote in June, saying that a long-term lease would be more cost-effective. At that time, the board put no restraints on the amount to be borrowed or the anticipated interest rate.

The amount of money being spent on construction, furniture and equipment was reduced by about half, lowering the total amount being borrowed, according to documents provided to the board. The property on Potomac Street that once housed Henry's Theatre and the Elks Lodge is scheduled to be renovated for the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

The resolution approved by the board Monday was scheduled to be voted on during a July 19 business meeting. But some board members had concerns and questions that took more than one week to address. Board President Roxanne R. Ober said Monday's meeting was scheduled specifically to address the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts resolution.

Board Member Bernadette Wagner said the vote was delayed so board members could make sure they understood the development agreement and the ground lease agreement with Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership Inc.

She said the board wanted to ensure that taxpayers' dollars were being spent responsibly. Washington County Public Schools will pay back the $8.3 million being borrowed at a rate of about $720,232 each year for 20 years if the interest rate is 6 percent, according to documents provided to the board.

"We have a responsibility to make sure we do have a good understanding of the financial commitment we are making," said Board Member Donna Brightman.

The board also voted unanimously Monday to begin soliciting construction bids. Board Member Ruth Anne Callaham, who was absent for that vote, had a prior work commitment.

The discussion Monday on the resolution was tense at times, with some board members pressing for a vote on the resolution, and others questioning whether some parts should be voted on separately or removed.

"With any project ... there are always going to be questions," said Board Vice President Wayne D. Ridenour. "At some point, you have to move forward. Every question we ask delays moving forward with this project."

The approved resolution allows Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan, Ridenour and Ober to make some decisions and sign documents without the consent of the full board.

Wagner said she had concerns about that portion of the resolution, saying it could set a precedent for future projects.

"I just have a conflict because it says that what we're doing is setting up a different way to approve bids," she said. "I don't think it's a whole lot to ask for us to get four (board members) together to approve a bid."

Ridenour said the resolution does not set a precedent and it is specific only to the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts project.

Brightman said she would like to establish some backup plans in case the school is not ready to open as scheduled in January 2009.

"This is an older building," she said. "And there may be some surprises yet on this. I would hate to disappoint our children and our teachers. I'm concerned that we've made some promises to the community and we want to be sure we keep them."

Morgan said she would provide some additional details to the board, along with a revised business plan, about historic tax credits and other available plans for community donations to offset some of the cost of the new school.

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