The Kent County Commissioners’ vote May 21 to take ownership of the vacant Millington Elementary School was an important move, in that it took a $50,000 budget line off the back of cash-strapped Kent County Public Schools and reminds us that open dialogue with the Board of Education can result in positive outcomes.
The vote was nearly a year in the making. When the Board of Education consolidated the five elementary schools here to three in 2017, it closed Millington and Worton elementary schools. The expectation from the start was that the Millington building would be surplussed back to the county, which could then use, sell or lease it. Future use for Worton Elementary — a much more strategically located property adjacent to Kent County High School — was and is still in question.
The district held off on surplussing Millington Elementary right away. Rather, a committee was convened to review all KCPS facilities. County government officials served on the committee. A facilities strategic plan was drafted and approved by the Board of Education officially calling for Millington Elementary to be surplussed.
The property’s transfer was expected to go through last July. In February, under the recommendation of County Attorney Tom Yeager, the commissioners put the transfer on hold. He had previously raised concerns about an agreement the state sought with the property’s transfer from the district to the county. Yeager said at the meeting in February that ownership should not be transferred out of a possibility the school may be re-opened.
Commissioner Ron Fithian took the opportunity that evening to lay out his idea for re-opening Millington Elementary, a proposal he restated during a budget workshop May 14 prompting the May 21 sit-down with Board of Education members. Fithian suggested moving sixth-graders to the elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-graders to Kent County High School. Re-opening the Millington building would help offset the burden of added students at the other three elementary schools.
In talking to the Board of Education and Superintendent Karen Couch May 21, the commissioners voiced concerns that the district was likely looking to build a new middle school. With the county likely on the hook for $30 million of the project’s funding, the annual debt service could run seven figures, they said.
There was quite a bit of back and forth between Board of Education members and Couch and the commissioners. Board of Education members spoke about how there were no plans to seek a new middle school at this time. A needs assessment, as called for by the facilities committee, on the current building in Chestertown has not been completed. Even so, Couch said carefully planned renovations could extend the building’s life by a couple decades.
Board of Education members also spoke about the added costs of re-opening Millington Elementary, such as the hefty maintenance the vacant building would require, renovations at the high school to make space for middle schoolers and reinstating staff positions cut during consolidation. Of even greater concern to Couch and board members is the detrimental effects on educational programming the proposal would have. Couch said doing so would be an educational mistake and that it would shortchange students and families.
Board of Education President Joe Goetz and Vice President Trish McGee said the question of Millington Elementary’s future was previously settled when they agreed to close the building and surplus it back to the county.
The commissioners took this all in. President Tom Mason gave one last pitch: The county pays the $50,000 for annual upkeep going forward, while the district retains ownership of the building. As the Board of Education members restated their opposition to re-opening the school, Fithian and Commissioner Bob Jacob signaled their willingness to go ahead and take the building. Mason made the vote unanimous.
And what of that state agreement that Yeager continued to voice concerns about May 21? Other than debt remaining on Millington Elementary, the county pays nothing to the state unless it sells or leases the property. Yeager is concerned because the state will not enumerate what share of any proceeds it would seek. State officials have said they may opt not to seek any. It is an old building and the state’s interest in it — the state helped pay for construction — is likely very low at this point. And the commissioners have previously offered to pay the debt, listed in the proposed county budget at $211,597.
The county funds the bulk of the KPCS budget. In recent years, debate over school funding has been acrimonious. There is a new board of commissioners this year, Fithian being the sole incumbent to win last year’s election.
While this year’s county and school budgets have not been finalized, we applaud the commissioners’ vote May 21 to finally transfer ownership of a building that has been vacant for nearly two years with no plans to re-open. We also applaud the Board of Education for coming to the table, listening to the commissioners’ pitch and offering reasoned debate. We hope to see more of this kind of cooperation and collaboration.