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School board gets out of city while the getting is good

April 03, 2013

Congratulations to the Washington County Board of Education for correctly answering the following question: Would you bet $50,000 on the city of Hagerstown being able to get its act together in the course of one month?

The answer, of course, is no. So the school board wasn’t about to spend any more money to extend the option it had on a piece of county property that will become its new home.

The board agreed Tuesday to purchase the former Allegheny Energy building for its new headquarters, rejecting a plea from the council to delay the decision while the city worked out a suitable alternative that would have sent the central offices into downtown.

The sidebars here are almost too difficult to count, but in no particular order:

1. As little as six months ago, the idea of the school board moving anywhere was so toxic that no one dared bring it up in public. Suggesting the expenditure of millions of dollars on new administrative offices — presumably at the expense of the students in the classrooms — was considered political suicide.

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Then, supporters of city redevelopment made a pitch for the school board offices downtown, at which point the school board frantically found an alternative. Since this alternative, the Allegheny Energy building, is by far the cheaper of the two options, the school board is now being widely praised by the public for doing something that it would have been resoundingly condemned for had it done the exact same thing at any time over the past decade.

How lucky is that? If I were the school board, I’d go out and buy a Powerball ticket.

2. What must the county be thinking? About 10 years ago, the Washington County Commissioners were pelted with abuse when they put out a feeler about moving their office complex into the Allegheny Energy building.

3. What must the Economic Development Commission be thinking? Or what would the EDC be thinking if we had one? We just spent a year on a study of economic development in the county. Now, we are about to spend another six months and $25,000 to study the study.

But if we had an EDC director, he might point out that the school board is moving into what we once thought was going to be a prime, technology-based industrial park. So one more dream of bringing Washington County’s work force into the 21st century goes by the boards.

4. When the hospital moved out of the city, council members threw so many obstacles in its path that it took an extra year or two and I forget how many millions of dollars to escape city clutches.

So I can just see the city inspectors showing up at the school board offices saying, “Oh I’m sorry, you have failed to obtain a Leaving Town For Good permit. No worries, we can make time for you to drop by the offices and get one on April 21, 2017. And oh deary dear, I’m sorry, but is that a cracked sidewalk I see? I’m afraid that’s going to be a $600,000 fine ...”

5. The last time the school board was in the news for a real estate transaction, it was because a local developer bought land for a new elementary school and then sold it for the school site at substantial profit. So where were the local developers this time?

As such, you can understand why the school board had to act immediately so someone didn’t beat them to the Allegheny property. Plus, the board doubtless felt the rush to lock themselves into new digs before the city found a viable alternative.

So we now know what it takes in Washington County to get our elected leaders to act: Threaten them with having to move downtown.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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