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Washington County Board of Education won't renovate Central Office

Board to meet with Greater Hagerstown Committee, Hagerstown's mayor and City Council, Sora Development, economic development officials, and other private developers and groups

January 29, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Board of Education on Tuesday decided not to renovate Washington County Public Schools’ Central Office complex and will meet with various groups to hear ideas about housing the school system’s administrative offices.

The school board will meet soon with groups such as the Greater Hagerstown Committee, Hagerstown’s mayor and City Council, Sora Development, economic development officials, and other private developers and groups, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

The discussion came during a Tuesday morning work session. Board members didn’t take formal votes, but came to a consensus not to renovate the Commonwealth Avenue complex and to eliminate four school buildings as possible sites for an administrative complex.

“The sense I got from the board is they want me to look outside this facility,” Wilcox said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. Remodeling the Commonwealth Avenue complex, or tearing it down to rebuild on that site, would be a backup plan, he said.

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The school board in June asked Wilcox to investigate possibilities for the school system’s administrative offices and in December heard a presentation that included options ranging from buying the former Allegheny Energy headquarters building on Downsville Pike for an estimated $4 million to building a new facility for $16 million. Estimated costs in the report were preliminary and incomplete.

Wilcox told the board he would lean toward a more innovative concept and suggested the board consider a facility that would serve more than one purpose.

For instance, an administrative complex could include an incubator concept for a boutique school, a charter school, or a teaching academy, he said. Or it could be a one-stop shop where families could register children for kindergarten and be referred to other community services at the site.

“At the same time, there’s some urgency to this conversation and some momentum for us to have this conversation today given what’s going on in the county and community,” Wilcox told the board.

There has been renewed discussion in the past year about the possibility of the school system’s offices being moved downtown to help spur revitalization. The Greater Hagerstown Committee has a task force investigating various ideas for a downtown office building. An economic development strategic plan prepared for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission and Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, also known as CHIEF, notes efforts are under way to relocate the school system’s administrative offices to downtown “to help build a critical mass of employment and consumers in the area.”

Others want the Central Office to stay put and for the school system not to spend money on administrative offices that otherwise could be used for students or raises, he said.

Access, parking and space are important for an administrative complex, board member Karen Harshman said.

“While downtown Hagerstown has pressured and pressured to get the board down there, I see none of those possibilities in downtown Hagerstown,” Harshman said.

Harshman said the former Allegheny Energy building would serve those needs.

Board member Wayne Ridenour agreed parking downtown is “ridiculous,” but in a phone interview later said that if the school system offices were to move downtown, parking would be part of the plan.

The current administrative complex is a mish-mash of different buildings, the oldest section dating to 1938. It also includes the large bus lot and a planetarium.

School system officials have said there is an estimated $4.7 million in deferred maintenance for the system’s administrative centers, most of which is for the Commonwealth Avenue complex. Wilcox said Tuesday that after considering the December report, the deferred maintenance for the complex could reach $10 million.

All seven board members raised their hands when Board President Justin Hartings asked if there was consensus to take renovating the Commonwealth Avenue complex “off the table.”

They agreed to eliminate the possibility of relocating the offices to the former Job Development Center building near Smithsburg or to three elementary schools that will close — Bester, Winter Street, and Conococheague.

Board member Paul Bailey said he didn’t think the board had “written off any suggestion or not listened to any recommendation, but if we’re going to cower because of a price tag put on something, ... if we let that dominate our discussion, we’re dead in the water right now.

“In other words, if we need $11 million, the public is going to react to that horribly, but the board has to have the backbone to say we can justify that $11 million by the product that we turn out and by the necessity of having a facility to do that,” Bailey said.

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