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School board members want 'hard numbers' on Hagerstown plan for offices

The city offers to pay $50,000 to extend the board's option on the Downsville Pike property to allow more time for the board to consider another site

March 27, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

Several Washington County Board of Education members said Wednesday that a letter they received from Hagerstown’s mayor and City Council regarding the city’s pitch to have the school board’s offices move downtown, didn’t offer enough detail.

“There’s several things missing from the letter and things I thought I had made clear yesterday, and I thought my colleagues had as well, is that we need some real numbers,” school board member Donna Brightman said Wednesday.

Hagerstown Mayor David S. Gysberts sat in on most of a Tuesday school board work session in which the board heard about an estimated $6.6 million in renovations needed for the former Allegheny Energy building in order for it to be suitable for school system offices.

In February, the school board entered a $5.5 million purchase agreement for the Downsville Pike property, which includes about 44 acres. The agreement gave the school system time to evaluate the property. The board will vote Tuesday whether to buy the property, walk away from it, or pay $50,000 to extend its option on the property by 33 days.

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The letter, which was signed by the mayor and all five City Council members, states the city is willing to pay the $50,000 for the extension, but want to be reimbursed if the school board relocates outside city limits.

City officials have been trying to revitalize the downtown, which includes trying to lure the Board of Education central offices.

“Our commitment includes the City’s willingness to acquire the site, demolish existing buildings, reduce procedural and utility burdens, and provide parking and other infrastructure and amenities to serve your employees and visitors,” the city’s letter states.

School system officials, including Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, have spoken about being responsible with taxpayer dollars, even though the school board is not a taxing authority.

A Greater Hagerstown Committee official has stated that the cost of acquiring a downtown site, demolishing buildings, and constructing a new office building starts at almost $17 million, and that does not include the cost of a parking deck.

Brightman said the best case scenario downtown would still leave a gap of $6 million to $8 million between it and the costs the school board has heard regarding the former energy company property.

Board member Jacqueline Fischer said she needs to see “hard numbers.”

“My bottom line is the cost. Whatever we spend on this is taking money away ... from the kids,” Fischer said. “I’m going to go with the least expensive option and the most value.”

Without seeing a final number to relocate downtown, Fischer said she thinks the city would have a hard time meeting the estimated $12.1 million to buy and renovate the Downsville Pike building, which comes with the added bonus of acreage to possibly build a new elementary or middle school.

“Not that I’m not sympathetic” to downtown Hagerstown, Fischer said.

“I miss the way downtown was back in the ’60s and ’70s, but I gotta do what’s best for the kids,” Fischer said.

School board member Melissa Williams said she also was sympathetic to what the city is “faced with in trying to revitalize downtown Hagerstown, and I would like to see good things happen down there. ... The board is being put in a very difficult position and ... we as a board need to make the right decision for all the right reasons and not because we’re being pressured to do what another governmental agency is telling us is the right thing to do.”

Williams said she was disappointed in the information the city had provided the school board so far and that she wanted to see exact costs and a timeline.

School board member Wayne Ridenour said, “My issue with the letter is there’s no real commitment. ... There’s been no vote. That letter is nonbinding.”

“There’s been no public vote. They don’t know the cost,” Ridenour said.

Ridenour said he received the March 26 letter Wednesday morning after it was sent to Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and forwarded to board members.

The City Council did not vote on the letter’s subject matter during its Tuesday night meeting. Gysberts did state during Tuesday night’s council meeting that the letter had been signed.

Asked if the letter changes anything for him, Board Vice President Paul Bailey said, “I think it has to be tied to the discussion that will occur next Tuesday.”

The board will hear from local developer Peter Perini and his construction partner behind closed doors on Tuesday before voting on the purchase agreement for 10435 Downsville Pike.

Board President Justin Hartings said he was glad city officials reached out with the letter and said the city’s offer to pay for the 33-day extension was generous.

“The more information we can get about what the mayor and council might be prepared to offer, or how they might partner in this opportunity, gives us more information to make a good decision,” Hartings said.

School board member Karen Harshman said if the school board accepts the city’s offer to pay for the extension and then relocates outside the city, the school system could lose $50,000 and 33 days when it “could be starting work on something.”

Brightman said she wasn’t sure she was willing to put $50,000 at risk.

“Are the taxpayers willing to pay $6 to $8 to $10 million more dollars for us to be downtown? Is that the right use for that money?” Brightman said.

Staff writer Holly Shok contributed to this story.

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