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School system should consider downtown for central office

December 17, 2012

For years, if not decades, talk of a new home for the Washington County Board of Education has been one of those things that just wasn’t talked about in the company of constituents. It was believed that the perception of putting administrators ahead of students was akin to political suicide.

And indeed, politics aside, this has been a noble course, especially as temporary classrooms were sprouting up across the county. The needs of the students certainly come first.

And rightly or wrongly, the central offices on Commonwealth Avenue were always held up as an avatar of bureaucratic largesse. “Take the wealth out of Commonwealth” was a political refrain back in the ’90s.

But the administrative buildings — a collection of cramped offices confederated by a mouse’s maze of nonsensical hallways — are 30 years past their prime, if a prime they ever had. As much as $80,000 a year worth of heat leaks out of the facility’s cracks and thin walls. Worse, the cobbled-together assortment of buildings presents a liability risk. Should the interior air quality ever manifest as an employee health issue, taxpayers might be on the hook for sums that make the cost of a new building look cheap.

We agree with consultant Harry Reynolds, who called the central offices “one of the worst buildings that I think I’ve walked through.” This would not be news to anyone who works there, and we have serious concerns that the shabby buildings could be an obstacle to attracting top-quality talent. We have been fortunate that good people have wanted to work there, but it’s a trend that might not continue.

So the groundwork for a new office building having been laid, thoughts will turn to how this task will be best accomplished. Two avenues seem to be attracting the most attention: the purchase of the old Allegheny Energy headquarters on Downsville Pike or the acquisition of a new or renovated space in downtown Hagerstown.

Both of these options would be superior to what the board has now. Certainly, the Downsville Pike option has appeal. It’s a relatively modern building with lots of space just off the interstate on an uncongested road. It is also likely to be cheaper than any downtown option. All things being equal, it might be a logical choice.

But all things are not equal, and relocating nearly 200 people with disposable incomes should not be done in a vacuum. We would like to see what’s best for the board in the context of what’s best for the community.

We are not suggesting that the central office be force-fitted into a problematic city setting, or that money should be no object. What we do believe is that, within reason, a downtown location should be given the benefit of every doubt.

Warts and all, Hagerstown is still the beating heart of Washington County. Just as people judge Anne Arundel County by Annapolis, Frederick County by the City of Frederick and Allegany County by Cumberland, Washington County is judged by Hagerstown.

That’s why it’s imperative for one and all to pay attention to downtown, instead of writing it off as a hopeless situation. Like it or not, Washington County cannot thrive without a viable Hagerstown.

A central school office will not fix all the city’s problems on its own. But it would be a piece of the puzzle. For one, new construction breeds new construction; something needs to prime the pump, and a modern office complex downtown would be a good start. Second, while it is folly to believe school board employees will suddenly start doing all their shopping in the city, downtown merchants will assuredly notice a few extra customers. And a few extra customers can be the difference between success and failure.

The search for a new central office comes at a fortuitous time, a time when the city is in desperate need of people and projects. We certainly want the board to perform its due diligence and, when the time comes, pick a site with a passing grade for its needs. But if it comes down to a matter of two options that are reasonably close, we believe the downtown should be graded on a curve.

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