SMC Commissioners, Board of Ed. at Odds Over Enrollment Projections, Construction Costs

By Guy Leonard, St. Mary's County Times

HOLLYWOOD, MD.—The latest capital construction plan from the St. Mary’s County Board of Education showed that school construction costs have risen to “historic” levels and that over the next 10 years student enrollment, especially in the middle grades, is set to skyrocket.

County Commissioners balked at both sets of information.

The latest figures from the state show that the cost of constructing a new school, which included the cost of the site, was close to $350 a square foot projected for fiscal 2017.

That translated into a 21 percent increase, or $49 per square foot, for that fiscal year alone, school officials reported.

Much of that was due to state requirements in finding a site and other construction issues such as hiring minority vendors, school officials said.

Despite that, Commissioner Todd Morgan said, the cost increase was staggering.

“Inflation is basically zero, wages are flat so this is hard for the tax payers to swallow,” Morgan said.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt also chaffed at the cost increases, especially when it came to whether the county should choose to put a school on the 200-plus acres on St. Andrews Church Road where a sports field complex has also been proposed.

Hewitt said sites like the Hayden property in Leonardtown were less costly because they had water and sewer infrastructure, whereas running those same utilities to the St. Andrews property would only drive up the price.

“When you’re talking about building a new school I would hope you would look for school sites that give us the most bang for our buck,” Hewitt told school officials, including Superintendent Scott Smith.

Kimberly Howe, director of Capital Planning and Green Schools, said the school system was also projecting vastly increasing numbers for student enrollment for the next 10 years based on trends they saw of a “bubble” of enrollees noted in the middle school grades.

This, Howe said, was due in part to more families staying in St. Mary’s County rather than moving to other jurisdictions.

Hewitt again disputed the figures saying that there were no indicators that a new economic force had entered the county to bring more jobs, in fact the navy had recently signaled that their would be a slowdown in job growth in defense related activities.

“I think you’re projections are too high,” Hewitt said.

The school system estimates that the current enrollement of more than 17,000 students will increase to more than 20,000 in a decade. Commissioner John O’Connor said that the increase might also be due to more families moving to St. Mary’s County from Beltway communities who still commute north for work.

Commissioner Tom Jarboe said the projections were still confusing.

“It seems counter-intuitive, if the navy work is flat where is the increase in enrollment?” Jarboe asked.

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