There has been talk in the community about the possibility of Washington County Public Schools’ administrative offices moving to downtown Hagerstown, but what do the elected school board members think of the idea?
Several Washington County Board of Education members said last week they remain open-minded about whether to move the school system’s administrative offices downtown, while others said they didn’t like downtown as an option, in large part because of parking concerns.
The school board has not discussed moving the Central Office — the main administrative office complex off Commonwealth Avenue — nor are there any immediate or long-term plans to make a move, several board members said.
Public speculation about a move began after local business and government officials attended a private meeting Jan. 4, for which the email invitation’s subject line was “Antietam bridge/BOE move/revenue sources.”
Last year, Greater Hagerstown Committee officials sought information from the school system to determine what the needs of an organization or company the size of the school system would be if it were to locate downtown.
After that information came to light, the idea of the school system’s Central Office moving downtown has been talked about in the community and some political candidates have mentioned it.
Board President Wayne Ridenour said locating downtown is an option.
“I’m open to anything that will help us run more efficiently,” Ridenour said. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to do something about that building. We’re either going to have to fix it or get out.”
The oldest section of the Central Office dates to 1938 and the administrative offices, which include a building on Frederick Street, have more than $4.7 million in deferred maintenance, most of which is for the Commonwealth Avenue complex, Deputy Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael said.
“(There will) always be that question: Are we going to spend the kind of money we need to spend to fix it or are we going to look at a new building?” Ridenour said.
As far as moving downtown, Ridenour said, “I don’t know that there’s any benefit, other than if and when we move, we’re going to move into a new facility.”
After all, he said, “It makes little sense to renovate another building when we have a building.”
As for other benefits to being downtown, “Just being in the proximity of the county offices would be the only thing I could think of off the top of my head,” Ridenour said.
Thoughtful plan needed
Proximity to other local government offices also was mentioned as a benefit by board member Justin Hartings.
Both the County Administration Building and Hagerstown City Hall are downtown, for instance.
“There may be ways we can share some costs and, therefore, produce savings, but I’m thinking off the top of my head,” Hartings said.
There’s a benefit, in general, to figuring out what the school system is going to do long term with its administrative facility, Hartings said.
Hartings said he’s open to considering any place that addresses Central Office needs, whether it’s doing something with the existing building, or moving downtown or elsewhere. Until officials look at the options, it’s hard to say which is the best one, he said.
“There’s a lot of things to consider. It’s not as simple as we’re going to build a new building and that’s going to solve everything,” Hartings said.
A thoughtful plan is needed, one that would take into consideration the needs of staff, including the maintenance and transportation departments that are off Commonwealth Avenue, Hartings said.
Neither Board Vice President Jacqueline Fischer nor board member Karen Harshman liked the idea of moving the offices downtown.
“I understand the need to revitalize downtown, but downtown to me would not be the perfect location. For one thing, because of parking,” Fischer said.
Fischer said she’s heard about the possibility of a third parking deck and rumors buildings could be demolished to make way for parking, but no matter where the administrative offices could go downtown, at least one parking deck would be pretty far from the offices.
Even if money were no object, Fischer said downtown would not be her first choice. Asked what would be, Fischer mentioned the former Allegheny Energy headquarters building on Downsville Pike. Although the building would have to be renovated, the location has easy access to Interstate 70 and is not in a congested area, she said.
Harshman said she could see no benefit to the school system if it moved downtown.
“I don’t think that the school system should be in the business of saving downtown,” Harshman said. “I think we’re in the business of helping our children and that’s where we should concentrate.”
If such a move were made, “The traffic, the parking, the availability of access to the building, would just be disastrous,” she said.
Harshman said she spent time on March 27 looking for a parking space downtown so she could attend a joint meeting of the school board and Washington County Commissioners. Between the traffic and trying to find a space, she said she was late for the meeting.
Harshman said she finds parking decks inconvenient for people who are in a hurry.
Harshman mentioned access issues, noting that people from throughout the county go to the administrative offices for workshops and meetings, some at night.
Parking also was a concern for board member Paul Bailey.
“I’m open to coming downtown if the facilities are adequate and parking is adequate. I’m willing also to renovate the present Central Office if it is cost-effective. If you have to pour millions of dollars into that building, it’s probably going to be cost-prohibitive,” Bailey said.
If the Central Office were to be moved, Bailey said downtown would be his first choice.
“Simply because I think the Board of Education is, I don’t want to call it a business, but it is an operation that would enhance the downtown corridor,” Bailey said.
Asked if there would be a benefit to the school system to having the administrative offices downtown, Bailey said “not a substantial benefit.”
Asked about the benefit of being downtown, board member Donna Brightman said, “The upside is we’re certainly all in this community together.”
Moving downtown could help rejuvenate the city’s core, but it would leave a building empty in another area of the city, she said.
“I don’t think it’s my primary job as an elected Board of Education member to rejuvenate downtown Hagerstown. My primary job is to educate children,” Brightman said.
“We need to balance the cost of maintaining a very old building versus the cost of building something new or rehabbing a different building somewhere else,” Brightman said. “There are other alternatives to just going downtown and (we) need to look at other alternatives.”
Brightman said the Central Office facility might come up during a May 15 work session at which construction and renovation priorities will be discussed.
Brightman, who chairs the board’s Facilities Committee, said state capital funds cannot be used to renovate or build school system offices unless classrooms are part of the project.
With that restriction, and because the school system does not have taxing authority, any renovations or construction solely for administrative offices would have to be paid for with county money or through a public-private partnership, she said.
Board member W. Edward Forrest said he was not closed to the idea of moving the offices downtown, “but I don’t see it as anything on the immediate horizon.”
Just finding a location downtown that could accommodate the school system’s needs “would be hard to imagine,” he said.
There’s no benefit in moving downtown, in terms of the school system’s mission to educate children, although it might provide more customers for downtown eateries and stores, Forrest said.
Forrest said some people are trying to make a campaign issue out of moving the school system’s administrative offices downtown.
“You can try to spin an issue out if it, but there’s nothing there to spin,” Forrest said.