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Washington County Schools Superintendent contends system is already big supporter of downtown

March 24, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Whether the Washington County Board of Education decides to move the school system’s administrative offices to downtown Hagerstown, the school system already is a big investor in downtown and expects to remain so, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

Washington County Public Schools’ investment in downtown is about $700,000 a year, according to figures provided by the school system’s budget and finance department.

Hagerstown officials want the school board to help revitalize the downtown by moving its administrative offices there.

The school board could vote formally as early as April 2 on whether to buy the former Allegheny Energy headquarters on Downsville Pike to house the administrative offices.

In August 2009, the school system opened the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, a fine-arts high school, in a renovated building at 7 S. Potomac St.

In addition to paying an annual $633,468 lease payment to Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership for the school, the school system leases parking deck spots and space at other downtown buildings to provide classroom, cafeteria and performance space for the arts school, according to Wilcox and an email from Eric Sisler, a financial/budget analyst for the school system.

Wilcox met with The Herald-Mail’s editorial board on March 20 to discuss the charge he was given by the Board of Education to research long-term options for the school system’s administrative offices. During that discussion, Wilcox said he talked to local developer Donald Bowman about the possibility of expanding the fine-arts school into the building Bowman owns next door.

The building, at 13-15-17 S. Potomac St., between the school and The Maryland Theatre, was purchased for $400,000 by Downtown Arts & Entertainment LLC in July 2012, according to online records for the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. Downtown Arts & Entertainment is a limited-liability corporation for Bowman Group, said Robin Ferree, president of Bowman Development.

Wilcox said he doesn’t know if the school system can invest in the Bowman property, but is looking into it. It’s possible the building could house cafeteria and classroom space for Barbara Ingram students so the school system would no longer need to lease space at Bridge of Life or the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, as it does now. The building also might provide an opportunity for expansion, but not necessarily increased student enrollment at the fine-arts school, he said.

“I think we are big users of downtown and we do support downtown, and we will continue to support downtown. BISFA will not go away if we relocate,” Wilcox said.

If the school system does invest in the Bowman property, it probably would do so under a lease-purchase plan, he said.

The lease-to-own payments the school system pays for the Barbara Ingram school are to the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership. Local property owner Vincent Groh donated the property for the school, which is named for Groh’s late wife, Barbara Ingram.

Converting the building for use as a school cost $10 million. The lease payments cover $8 million of those renovations, a portion of which is financed through tax-free bonds, according to Herald-Mail archives.

Last fall, the school system began leasing space at Bridge of Life, across South Potomac Street from the Ingram school, so students would no longer have to eat lunch in hallways and classrooms.

The annual cost of the lease for the cafeteria and office space at Bridge of Life is $38,496 for the first two years, although the first year was to be prorated since the arrangement began after the school year started, Deputy Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael said in October 2012. The annual cost for each of the two additional one-year options on the lease is $40,712.

In addition, the school system pays $5,400 a year to use nine classrooms at the USMH building on West Washington Street, according to Sisler’s email.

The school system is paying $15,450 this year for use of The Maryland Theatre’s stage and/or lobby for teaching and rehearsal spaces, according to Sisler’s email. That deal includes Ingram’s use of the theater for up to eight productions, he said.

Wilcox said the school system also pays the city for parking spaces in one of the downtown parking decks.

A new agreement calls for the school system to pay $14,750 for parking, Sisler said. The school system will pay $13,950 — the nine-month fee for 31 passes to the Arts & Entertainment Parking Deck, and $800 for 1,000 parking coupons, Sisler said.

The school system provides the coupons for part-time staff members who are at the arts school for a few hours a week, to other staff members who go downtown for meetings and to adjudicators of student performances, Sisler said.

In the past, the parking deck costs were close to $20,000, and cost $17,800 last year, Sisler said.

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