Most Washington County Board of Education members said this week that at some point they will need to discuss what to do with the school system’s aging Central Office, but they have not discussed moving it.
The issue arose after school board President Wayne Ridenour attended a private meeting held Jan. 4 at the Fountain Head Country Club in which several local business and government officials discussed what local projects might be funded if the state raises the gasoline tax.
The subject line of the Dec. 27 email invitation to the meeting included the phrase “BOE move.”
D. Bruce Poole, a local attorney and former state delegate, said he emailed invitations to Ridenour and school board member Justin Hartings. Other than Ridenour being board president, there was “no rhyme or reason” as to which school board members he invited, Poole said.
Interviewed by The Herald-Mail a few days after the meeting, Ridenour declined to comment on the meeting, noting he hadn’t had time to talk to other school board members about the discussion.
Asked about the meeting again on Monday, Ridenour said: “All I did was listen to everything that was being said.”
During his 12 years on the school board, board member Paul Bailey said other groups have periodically talked about moving the school board’s Central Office from Commonwealth Avenue to downtown Hagerstown.
Last year, a group from the Greater Hagerstown Committee met with school board members, asking what the school system’s space needs would be if were located downtown, Vice President Jacqueline Fischer and board member W. Edward Forrest said.
The school system provided basic information such as the number of employees and square footage needed, but made no commitment of any kind, Forrest said. The discussion was held during a closed session because officials didn’t want to jeopardize negotiations for real estate, he said.
“Obviously, people are looking to redevelop downtown and attract a private or public entity downtown,” Forrest said.
Forrest emphasized there are no plans in the school system’s capital improvement plan for a downtown move.
The 820 Commonwealth Ave. administrative center has original sections from 1938 and 1958 with additions in 1966, 1969 and 1990, according to the school system’s Educational Facilities Master Plan.
The building’s roof, electrical system, sprinkler and fire alarm are described as poor in the master plan. Heating, air conditioning, flooring, technology wiring and security are described as adequate.
Ridenour said the Central Office “has issues. That’s the nice way to put it.”
“We can’t keep slapping Band-Aids on it,” Ridenour said. That’s “throwing good money to bad. Is that the politically intelligent thing to say? Of course not.”
A $4.7M bill
Hartings said the central office has about $4.7 million in deferred maintenance needs.
From a business point of view, Hartings said if he knows he has a $4.7 million bill coming due, it makes sense to look at the different ways to address those costs, whether through renovation, building new offices or continuing to patch the current facility.
Whatever the board decides to do with the administrative offices, Bailey said it should make sure the space is adequate for staff needs.
“In this economic situation, I can’t see the board putting out any money to move,” Fischer said.
“I don’t think the current or future board would jeopardize funding for a new school to build a new central office or renovate (it),” Forrest said.
Board member Karen Harshman said she had concerns about the Central Office, but “I am not sure this is the right time to even consider a move. I think there are some improvements that could be made, and possibly we could wait for a better economic situation before we actually make plans.”
Harshman said she believed there were leaks in the roof and some offices were small and overcrowded, but she thought the space issue “might pan out.” She declined to elaborate.
Some board members said they wished Ridenour had informed them of the Jan. 4 meeting before it occurred.
“I do kind of think it was not right for it to be so secretive,” Fischer said.
She said she didn’t know how much advance warning Ridenour received for the meeting.
Board member Donna Brightman said the email invitation was issued Dec. 27, and the board met on Jan. 3, before the meeting at the country club, so Ridenour could have informed his colleagues of the email invitation before the private meeting.
The private meeting resulted in misinformation as people thought moving the school board offices downtown was a done deal, Brightman said.
The school system has a process for prioritizing capital improvement projects so that they can be weighed against one another and their feasibility discussed, Brightman said.
“I don’t approve of secret meetings,” Harshman said. “I would not have taken part in a secret meeting. I think we are stressing transparency, and I think that goes against everything that the board of education stands for.”
She said Ridenour should have informed fellow board members about the meeting.
Harshman said if she had been invited to the meeting she would not have attended unless the public had been made aware of the meeting and other board members had been invited.
While invited to the Jan. 4 meeting, Hartings said he didn’t attend it because he was coaching his son’s basketball game.
“I think it’s the board president’s responsibility to represent the board at a variety of meetings,” Hartings said.
The issue was not raised during the board’s Tuesday night meeting.