State board upholds Carroll BOE's decision to close schools

Emily Chappell
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times
Still no decision made after the appeals hearing regarding the closure of three Carroll County schools.

About eight hours after members of the Carroll County community pleaded for the Maryland State Board of Education to save their schools, a decision came down from the state board Tuesday evening to uphold the local board's decision to close three buildings.

MSBE President Guffrie Smith said there were strong discussions on the issue during the day, but ultimately, the evidence needed to overturn the local board's ruling just wasn't there.

"We have to have real good evidence," he said.

A written opinion is expected to be published later this week.

Vice President James Gates said the state board listened to and heard what was said at Tuesday's meeting, but the board's decision reaffirmed what Carroll County's school board decided months ago.

In December, the Carroll Board of Education voted 4-1 to approve Superintendent Stephen Guthrie's recommendation to close North Carroll High, New Windsor Middle and Charles Carroll Elementary schools at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. Carroll school officials have said the decision was the result of declining enrollment systemwide and that the closures would save more than $5 million a year.

January brought five appeals challenging the legality and necessity of the closures. This past spring, an administrative law judge recommended motions made by the Carroll County Public Schools for summary affirmance in the cases of all three schools be granted, which would allow the closures to stand. The appellants responded with the filing exceptions, an act that sent the process into the state board's hands Tuesday morning.

Tuesday's decision left community members shocked and saddened.

Don Garmer, a North Carroll alum who filed one of the appeals to stave off the closures, said the state board's decision "astonished" him.

"It sounded like they realized what the school board was saying was not true," Garmer said after the decision had been rendered.

Tara Battaglia, who filed an appeal to stop the closure of Charles Carroll, called the news "disappointing," though she was glad the appellants were able to take their case to the state board.

Some of the appellants aren't giving up just yet.

Attorney Bill Sinclair, who has been representing the New Windsor Middle appellants since March, said during Tuesday's hearing that if the state board didn't overturn the original ruling, they'd file a preliminary injunction this week. He could not be reached for comment by 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Three appeals were filed pro se, or on behalf of themselves without legal representation. Another, filed by Baltimore attorney Donald J. Walsh and Manchester attorney Dawn Nee, was filed on behalf of North Carroll High School students, the mayors of Hampstead and Manchester, the North Carroll Recreation Council, and two Hampstead businesses.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the room on the seventh floor of the Nancy S. Grasmick State Education Building in Baltimore was packed with members of the Carroll County community, many donning shirts bearing words begging to save their schools.

Emotions were high as advocates were given short time periods — at most six minutes — to explain their points of view.

Lori Wolf, a community member who filed one of the appeals to keep North Carroll open, told the state board Tuesday that the decision to close the schools was "illegal, arbitrary and ... not made on sound educational policy."

Claims of targeting, the county school board not following procedure in making its decision and a lack of transparency were themes that ran strong as appellants made their case Tuesday.

"Our local school board is not transparent at all," added Wolf.

Nee told the state board that what the Carroll County school board is doing is illegal, and that North Carroll has been targeted.

Appellants repeatedly said the Carroll County Board of Education didn't do a school-by-school analysis before making decisions to close, though legal representation for the school system rebuffed those claims. Many expressed concern over the possibility of overcrowding if schools are closed.

Multiple times appellants said the closing of the schools would result in overcrowding, particularly at Manchester Valley High School. Most students from North Carroll will attend Manchester Valley if the closures aren't overturned.

Wolf told the board she was concerned about safety with that many students being put into a building, and community members said there are already issues, prior to closures.

Nee told the board Manchester Valley has had problems with not enough lockers, parking and athletic fields. This will only worsen with an increase in students, she added.

But Edmund O'Meally, attorney for the Carroll County school system, said no such issue exists.

"No one enjoys closing a school," O'Meally told the state board, noting two high schools are only about half full and once combined will not be overcrowded.

Manchester Valley has room for 1,380 students, but only 775 students.

"That school will not be busting at the seams," said O'Meally.

Even if new housing developments are built, O'Meally said, the enrollment is not expected to grow beyond capacity.

O'Meally assured the state board that Carroll's Board of Education followed procedure, and has been open and transparent along the way, he said.

"We are in an emergency," he said, where cuts had to be made.

O'Meally argued that the school closures need to move forward because savings created by closing the schools have already been dedicated to other expenditures, such as teacher raises, in the fiscal year 2017 budget. The school board most recently ratified contracts for teachers that include raises, which go into effect July 1.

Many of O'Meally's statements were met with scoffs and laughter from the crowd, anger obvious among community members.

Members on the state board had questions for O'Meally, bringing up issues that were mentioned by appellants at the start of the hearing.

State school board member Madhu Sidhu said every time O'Meally spoke, most in the audience could be seen shaking their heads in disagreement, something that's hard to ignore.

Gates also revoiced concern over a lack of transparency. Appellants brought up text messages that were exchanged between Carroll County school board members, which were discovered during the appeals process, that discuss making sure "their" schools weren't closed. Gates referenced that claim, saying it concerned him.

Specifically, board member Jennifer Seidel — who lives in Mount Airy — had sent text messages in September to other board members expressing concern over a plan from the school system's Boundary Adjustment Committee that would've closed the three aforementioned schools, as well as Sandymount Elementary and Mount Airy Elementary, and realigned feeder matters.

"I am fuming after reading the report," Seidel wrote in a text to Carroll school board President Jim Doolan. "[I]f I am reading the maps corectly, it looks like a small group of students within the towns limits of Mt A[iry] will go to Winfield [Elementary]. So, we'll have cleaned up feeders, but ripped a town apart where most of the kids go to one school and a small group of kids drive much further (sic) to go to a totally different school. That will impact property values, as one neighborhood appears to be divide in two (mine!!).

"So, now I'm trying to figure out how many other communities we're ripping apart ... ."

The plan she referenced was the basis for Guthrie's recommendation to close three schools that was ultimately approved by the school board.

Gates asked if the process could be delayed by a year, saying the decision to close schools appeared to be rushed.

"That's what this feels like," he said, adding that more time may alleviate some concerns from the public.

Board members brought up Gov. Larry Hogan's plans to give $4 million in stopgap funding to Carroll County Public Schools to postpone school closures. The Carroll County Commissioners ultimately used that money to make up for a shortfall in the BOE's budget request and available county funding this year.

Despite many questions, the board's final decision sided with the Carroll County Board of Education.

O'Meally said he was pleased with Tuesday's result.

"I think that's the right call," he said.

Battaglia said she hopes that because of this incident, the state will be watchful so nothing like this will ever happen again.

"We have brought a lot of awareness to other families in the county to keep their eyes and their ears open on future Board of Education decisions," she said. "I'd do it all over again."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

Emily.Chappell@CarrollCountyTimes.com

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Twitter.com/EmilyChappell13

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