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As Long as We Remember...

February 23, 2006

$100 Million Fiasco Buries Common Sense

John W. Ashbury

It's time to throw the rascals out. They have little or no regard for the taxpayers who foot the bill for their extravaganzas. And the product they are turning out leaves a great deal to be desired.

The Frederick County Board of Education has four seats up for election in the fall and each of the incumbents should be tossed out on their collective ears. The proof is in the pudding; and the pudding in this case is the recent staff recommended capital improvement budget that has been forwarded to the county commissioners for funding.

In the supporting documents for the request, Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) officials admit that there are 1,461 seats in excess of total enrollment. That doesn't count portable classrooms, about which we hear so many complaints from parents.

It is a disgrace that these elected officials won't bite the bullet and redistrict. Of course, more parents will complain about redistricting than are complaining about portables. But it needs to be done - instead of continuing to build new seats every year.

It is hard to believe that the BOE members don't understand that that many seats above enrollment represents nearly the capacity of an elementary school and a middle school.

And, to top it off it was learned last week that the $20.8 million price tag - quoted just last month - for a new administration Taj Mahal for the top FCPS brass has now jumped to more than $27 million. This figure does not include the cost to build a parking deck to accommodate FCPS employees.

The entire idea of taking a prime piece of Carroll Creek project real estate at the corner of East South and East Streets off the tax rolls of both the city and the county for this new building is criminal. This corner will be the gateway to the city upon the completion of improvements to I-70 and the extension of East Street to meet the interstate.

In addition to this crazy idea comes word - through the CIP request from staff - that the cost of the new east county high school, now called Oakdale High, has jumped to more than $73 million from the 2005 estimate of $58 million. This is before the first shovel of dirt has been turned - an event now scheduled for this summer.

There can be no question that Linganore High needs total renovation; and the only sensible way to accomplish that is to build Oakdale High, move the Linganore students in, do the renovations, and then divide the student body between the two schools. Such actions would also accommodate expected student population growth.

In the recommended CIP, school administrators are estimating now that the Linganore rehabilitation will cost $65 million. It will be a two year project to be completed at the end of the 2012 fiscal year - a full four years after Oakdale High's planned opening.

Why isn't this project moved up. It should begin the same summer Oakdale High opens, not two years later. High school seats present the only deficit in permanent capacity at present.

But, let's return to the present situation. To spend $73 million on Oakdale and build a new palatial facility for the administrators at the same time defies logic. Hurricane Katrina has brought about part of this problem, causing about a 25 percent increase in the cost of construction materials. And with a lot of skilled craftsmen moving south to get higher pay and guaranteed jobs for many years, it is safe to assume that increased labor costs do indeed figure in these estimates.

However, there is an alternative on the table.

A local entrepreneur, who asked that he not be identified publicly in this early stage of development, has come forward with a proposal that should satisfy the grandiose wishes of the FCPS administration.

He owns a prime parcel of ground in downtown Frederick on which he is willing to build a 100,000 square foot, Class A office building and provide 300 parking spaces on the site as well.

He says he can build the structure for around $16 million, but cautions that the price could increase depending on the extra amenities that FCPS wants included.

There are a lot of plusses in this idea. First and foremost is that this building will remain on the tax rolls until the lease expires and ownership is turned over to the county commissioners who would then assign it to FCPS.

Secondly, the cost, as currently proposed, is $11 million less that the projected costs the BOE is suggesting; probably because if the school system builds the building it will have to pay Baltimore area prevailing wages for labor, whereas the local developer would not have to abide by that state law. At least that is the current thinking.

The sadness in all of this is that there are students graduating from our high schools today who have only a minimum ability to read. Even some of the students, who graduate in the middle of the pack in their classes, have to take remedial English and math classes at Frederick Community College before they can begin earning credits toward a college degree.

In this space there have been complaints for years that our Board of Education is not doing enough to prepare all students for the work-a-day world that most will enter upon graduating. The ability to read is paramount to their success, and too many can't even read an employment application with enough understanding to fill it out. If there is only one in this category, it's tooooooooo many.

Yes, the upper echelons of graduating seniors do extremely well in getting into college and matriculating to a degree of their choosing. We hear about them all the time. But when was the last time you heard about anything that was being done to address the "academic problems" of struggling students?

We need to have candidates for these four open seats on the Board of Education who will hold feet to the fire and not continue to eat at the public trough, swallowing the garbage fed to them by a staff determined to protect their cushy jobs.

In 2004 there were just three candidates for three seats. So the public had no choice in the matter. There are a lot of qualified people in Frederick County who would not be kowtowed by criticism when they support common sense solutions to problems critical to the success of those placed in their care with the idea that their children will be taught the basics - if nothing else.

It's four months before the filing deadline. Concerned citizens need to step up to the plate and take a turn at bat. Our future depends on it.

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