By Terry Rogers
On Monday, May 19 the Milford Board of Education heard from the public regarding the recent boarding of windows in the closed Milford Middle School building, as well as from those who were concerned about proposed budget cuts that were included in the agenda. Many who live in the area surrounding the school are concerned that the boarded windows will devalue their property.
“The boarded building creates an eyesore, and I have gotten several different explanations for why the windows were boarded,” said Jamie Burk who lives on School Place, directly across from the old Middle School. “One person told me it was for security, while another told me it was to send a message to the city, and a third told me that it was because the air conditioning units had been removed so they had to board the windows.” Mr. Burk also explained that two security cameras had been removed and moved to another school, leaving the building vulnerable.
Mr. Burk asked if the district had consulted with other districts that had historic school buildings that were no longer being used as schools to see how they maintained the buildings. Mr. Burk felt that the boarded windows sent the wrong message to visitors to the city and explained that during the housing boom, he worked for a developer, often traveling to locations to decide whether to build in certain areas. He said that in areas where buildings were boarded, he would recommend that the developer choose another location.
“We are all Team Milford, and we work hard to keep this city beautiful,” Mr. Burk explained. “In fact, my children and I spent yesterday planting flowers downtown along with the Vice President of this board. We take pride in our city and I am embarrassed that people from out of town who came to the 57th Annual Hospital Fair this weekend saw the boarded windows.”
Patti Persia also spoke to the board, saying that the Middle School had always been an excellent neighbor, but that now she felt as if she was “living in the inner city”. She explained that when the Middle School was built as Milford High School, it represented a coming together of the town as, prior to its construction, Sussex County students attended high school in that county while Kent County students attended a different school.
“I love the history of old buildings,” Ms. Persia explained. “I think we owe it to this old building to be conservators of the history it brings here. It is on a main road into our city and it disturbs me that visitors will ride past it. In addition, one of the businesses I own is a real estate appraisal business. I can tell you that properties within a 450 mile radius of a boarded building will have lower property values. In fact, when I do an appraisal, I must note that there is a boarded building in the vicinity.” Ms. Persia suggested that the school board could have painted the plywood and placed it inside the windows so that it was less obvious that the building was abandoned.
“You say we do not value our historic homes,” said Marvin Schelhouse, School Board President. “I can tell you that the first historic building I attempted to save was in 1969 when General Torbert’s home was scheduled for demolition. I am a historian and I am on the board of the Milford Historical Society. The state tells us it has to be demolished, so what can we do? I can’t speak to Greenwood, Lewes or any other town, but I would imagine private donations have helped keep those buildings open.”
Superintendent Phyllis Kohel said that there had been several break-ins at the school over the past few months. She explained that she asked the School Resource Officer, Joseph Melvin, to research police reports, and Officer Masten found that there had been a report in January where someone broke in, and as they were leaving, bent a push bar on a door before breaking the glass. Not long after that, someone entered the building, leaving lights on in classrooms on the third floor.
“I called the city, they did not contact me,” Dr. Kohel explained. “I spoke to the City Clerk and to City Manager, Richard Carmean, who told me that if the district voluntarily took steps to secure the building, there was no risk of a possible condemnation notice, which we definitely did not want. Since we have boarded the windows, there have been no further security breaches.” Dr. Kohel said that the bill for the plywood was $300, and Glen Stevenson, Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds, said that they purchased a small amount of lumber, using some they already had on hand to complete the project.
One of the reasons the fate of the building is up in the air is the failure of referendums in March 2014. The district asked for a tax increase to demolish and build a new school as well as an additional increase to cover rising operations costs. The state uses a formula to determine when they will no longer provide maintenance funds to a district when a school ages, and the Milford Middle School was far above the limit for the state to continue maintaining it. Therefore, the district was required to ask for a referendum in order to get state assistance to build a new school as the state would no longer provide any assistance to renovate or repair the current school.
“We have to work with what we have,” said board member, Mark Schanne. “I love the suggestion of the boards inside the windows. I think that would be a great compromise for all involved. None of us wanted this building to close and we hate that it is boarded up as much as everyone else. However, we are limited in what we can do.”
Since neither referendum passed, the board said they needed to make some difficult decisions. Without budget cuts, the district would be running in a deficit by the end of 2016. The school has proposed a 20 percent cut in almost all areas of the budget, although there are some items that cannot be cut, such as energy, transportation and some special services. The cuts will allow the district to save $561,336.89, but more will need to be made.
Tiffany Scott, a parent of a Milford student, spoke to the board about a rumor that sports, such as swimming, would be cut in an effort to reduce costs. Ms. Scott was there to offer support for the swim team, which she understood might be cut from the athletic program for the next school year. Later in the agenda, during the budget discussion, Dr. Kohel explained that the board was exploring elimination of three athletic programs and/or going to a Pay-to-Play program. The sports being considered for elimination are Winter Track, Swimming and Competition Cheerleading.
“All Winter Track meets are out of state, and the transportation costs alone were $7,000 this year,” Dr. Kohel explained. “The rental of the pool and the limited contracts for coaches for swimming costs us $16,000 each year. This year, we have incurred homebound costs for at least four students who suffered concussions as a result of competition cheerleading, and the program costs around $6,500 per year.” Dr. Kohel also explained that by charging each player $50 to participate in sports, it could raise $32,500 per year.
Dr. Kohel asked the board to consider another referendum in the fall. She said that the state required the district to wait six months before they asked for another referendum, and that would be September 26. The Certificate of Need will expire October 31, so Dr. Kohel recommended a possible referendum at the end of October. She said she would like to work with others in the community, offering assistance to help promote a second referendum.