The Frederick County Council understands that five elementary schools are in poor condition.
Still, the council denied the Board of Education’s request to transfer surplus funds to study how to remedy those conditions, arguing there’s no money in the subsequent capital budget to cover the projects.
The budget amendment would have allocated $250,000 to a Facility and Program Assessment Study for Emmitsburg, Lewistown, Sabillasville, Thurmont and Wolfsville elementary schools. The money would have come from a surplus from the now completed Frederick High School replacement project. The school board approved moving the funds at a June workshop, but budget transfers must also get approval from the County Council.
County officials and council members say the study would lead to projects the county can’t currently fund in its Capital Improvements Program. School officials, on the other hand, said it would help the district reconfigure how it completes systemic renovations. For instance, rather than replacing boilers and chillers in a piecemeal approach at several different schools, the district could complete a more extensive renovation at one school that does things like eliminating open-space learning — a school design feature that has largely become obsolete.
Council members, however, expressed concerns, pointing to a current projected $91.85 million shortfall in capital funding for school projects in the next three years. Projects at Liberty and Brunswick elementary schools, for instance, were deferred in part over the next three years, totaling about $61 million in unfunded requests in the projected 2023 capital budget alone. The district said, though, that the study could help them properly prioritize capital projects.
Due to funding shortfalls, the district has had to defer more than $420 million in systemic projects, a number expected to grow to more than $500 million in the next decade. While subsequent projects that come after the study wouldn’t necessarily reduce that number in the near term, it could allow the district to take a more holistic approach to school renovations and save money in the long term.
Since 2000, $8.2 million in capital funds have been used to complete critical system replacements at these five schools. Older buildings that do not have upgraded systems cost more to operate and maintain. Maintenance backlog for these schools will approach $32 million by 2028, according to the school district’s educational facilities master plan.
The desire for the district to change its approach to renovation projects stems from a change at the state level, FCPS Chief Operations Officer Paul Lebo said. In the state public school capital improvement program, the state developed a new project category called limited renovation projects. Limited renovation projects include projects to partially renovate all or parts of schools that are 15 years or older, improve building performance or correct deficiencies.
To be eligible, the project must contain a minimum of five major building systems and substantial educational and architectural enhancements. A feasibility study is required to justify removal or abandonment in excess of half of the building. The study being requested by the Board of Education was not a feasibility study, but an assessment to determine the scope of the work it might want to complete.
The council voted down the budget adjustment amendment, 7-0, because of the anticipated costs that would occur if the study were conducted.
Council Vice President Michael Blue (R) said he understands the need, but it would have to wait until the county’s next fiscal budget.
He also pointed to council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) and County Executive Jan Gardner’s (D) support of county schools in the past — and their concern with the amendment — as a reason for his vote.
“There’s going to be systemic issues with every school, especially schools that are 20, 30, 40 years old,” Blue said. “But I mean, it’s just bad timing. I really do think if you have advocates for education like the county executive and the president of this council, for them to think that it’s just not a good thing, that speaks volumes to me.”
Board of Education Vice President Joy Schaefer said she understands the concerns that the amendment was outside the traditional budgeting process, but improvements are needed at those schools, and a study would allow them to identify the scope of the work.
Limited renovation projects “require a pretty big readjustment to CIP going forward,” Schaefer said. “I think this limited renovation approach is new, because normally what we’ve done is a full-out renovation or a replacement of one systemic issue at a time.”
Janice Spiegel, director of education and special initiatives under Gardner, said Wednesday one concern was the Board of Education’s requested study didn’t identify what work needed to be done at those five elementary schools.
Chief Administrative Officer Rick Harcum said multiple times at Tuesday’s meeting that if the budget amendment were approved, it would throw the county’s budget out of sync with the Board of Education’s budget.
Spiegel said county officials — including the Capital Improvement Program committee — also hadn’t had a chance to review the Facility and Program Assessment Study.
“It’s an unusual process to come in when we just finished up the [fiscal 2020] budget to ask for a different study,” she said.
However, the district does come before the council with budget amendments almost every quarter, Schaefer said.
Council members did approve an amendment, 7-0, that moved $100,000 from a Liberty Elementary Modernization/Addition Feasibility Study to fund a Brunswick Elementary Modernization Feasibility Study.
Spiegel said that project was planned during the county’s budgeting process, which has Brunswick “elementary” as a placeholder school.
The board can now wait to see if another chance to submit a request through a construction budget savings occurs this year, or include it in their next full budget cycle request.
Staff writer Katryna Perera contributed to this report.