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Washington County Board of Ed members noncommittal on move downtown

February 13, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Parking and cost were among the items that stood out to Washington County Board of Education members as they reacted to a report about potential sites in downtown Hagerstown for the school system’s future administrative offices.

Most board members didn’t state a preference about whether to move to the downtown administrative offices that are now based mainly at the Central Office off Commonwealth Avenue.

The school board will meet Tuesday with the mayor and Hagerstown City Council about the possibility of the offices moving downtown.

City officials are looking for ways to redevelop downtown and the school board decided in January not to renovate its aging Commonwealth Avenue complex. That leaves the options of finding a new site or rebuilding on the Commonwealth Avenue site, school board President Justin Hartings said Wednesday.

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On Tuesday, a Greater Hagerstown Committee task force presented to the City Council a study listing potential sites for a new Central Office, including four sites it said had the best potential. Three of those sites are on Washington Street and one is at the corner of West Antietam and South Potomac streets, across from the new library.

“I think they provided a tremendous service, not only to the board of education, but to the community,” Hartings said of the task force’s work.

The task force report has given school board officials a lot to think about and provided a “good understanding of what options might be downtown,” Hartings said.

Board member Jacqueline Fischer said she wanted more detail.

One issue that jumped out at her from watching the presentation on television was parking, Fischer said.

“First of all, there’s no way I would ask our employees to pay parking,” said Fischer, who said the school system shouldn’t have to pay for employee parking either.

Fischer referred to a cost comparison made during Tuesday’s presentation to the City Council of building downtown or building on school system land that noted the estimated cost of parking downtown would be $45 a month per employee or approximately $108,000 a year for 200 employees.

As of early December, 159 employees worked regularly at the Commonwealth Avenue complex. The complex also hosts training sessions for employees.

Fischer said there is talk of the city building a parking deck at no cost to the board, and that would remove an obstacle, but wouldn’t be a financial incentive to move downtown.

If the school system were to rebuild at its Commonwealth Avenue site, parking would be no problem, she said.

Board member Karen Harshman said she remains concerned about parking and noted money is always an issue.

“I think we have to be good stewards of our finances, so I think we have to look closely at that and see what they have planned to assist us,” Harshman said.

Board member Melissa Williams said she would like to make sure there is dedicated parking for the Central Office so employees don’t have to drive around looking for an opening in a parking deck.

She said the price tag jumped out at her as she read the task force’s report.

Overall cost estimates for the four best potential downtown sites range from $16.8 million to $18.25 million, including demolition, land acquisition and construction.

“That’s a lot of money,” Williams said.

Williams said she was mindful of money and time.

“I think the sooner we can make the move, the better it will be for the system in terms of money,” said Williams, repeating a concern that has been voiced by board member Wayne Ridenour. That concern is that it is only a matter of time before something goes wrong at the current administrative complex that would be expensive to fix.

Ridenour said he was familiar with the four downtown sites considered to have the best potential and he was “not overly surprised by the costs.”

Ridenour said he didn’t want to make any judgments before Tuesday’s joint meeting with the Hagerstown City Council.

Board Vice President Paul Bailey said he liked the idea of having the Central Office near the Washington County Free Library, but said the board needs to look at all options downtown and elsewhere.

Financing and the cost of the facility remain a concern, as does how quickly the project could be accomplished, Bailey said.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox was traveling on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

School board member Donna Brightman was unavailable Wednesday.

Asked whether she thought the Central Office should go downtown, Fischer said, “I think if everything financially and spacewise works out, then I think it’s a good move. I think it’s a boon to the downtown area.”

But, she said, there are an “awful lot of situations that would have to be solved first.”

Most board members said they didn’t have a preference about a move downtown.

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