Any plans to close the oldest school in Howard County are off the table for now, Superintendent Renee Foose told the West Friendship community last week.
"As many of you are aware, the Howard County Public School System feasibility study issued in June included a recommendation to close West Friendship Elementary School between August 2014 and August 2017," Foose wrote in an Oct. 3 email. "I am writing to inform you that I do not plan to recommend to the Board of Education the closure of West Friendship during this time frame."
Foose's announcement came a week after the West Friendship community spoke during a public forum at the Sept. 26 board meeting and urged against closing the school, highlighting the school's history, strength of its programs and community support.
The news that West Friendship will not be closing in the immediate future came as a relief to parents, though not necessarily a surprise.
"This was our goal all along, for this to not even go before the board for consideration," said West Friendship PTA President Cheryl Triska. "It's not an absolute, but I believe that (Foose) doesn't have any plans to bring it before the board until 2017. I think West Friendship will always be included in the feasibility study because of the sewer system, but I don't believe that extra couple of sentences about closing the school will be there for now."
In past feasibility studies, attention has been drawn to West Friendship because of its on-site septic system — it is one of 10 schools with an on-site wastewater treatment system that must be closely monitored. As recently as 2012's feasibility study, a projected school in the Turf Valley area in Ellicott City had been proposed as a possible replacement school for West Friendship. But the 2013 feasibility study was the first time specifically closing West Friendship was put forth.
Though closing the school was never formally proposed to the board as an immediate option, the idea left the community with "a feeling of complete shock," Triska said.
So the PTA started to mobilize, with work culminating in the massive presentation to the board in September.
"We were trying to get ahead of the train before it left the station," said PTA member Lori Bacon. "That was our call to action over the summer."
Officials cited chronic under-utilization at West Friendship, which first opened its doors in 1925, as a reason for closing the school. According to numbers presented in the feasibility study, West Friendship can hold 396 students. Triska said the most recent enrollment figure is at 287, and the PTA will soon be undertaking a "Be Counted" campaign, where parents go door-to-door to see how many families have, or will soon have, students attending the school. Newer schools nearby like Dayton Oaks and Bushy Park elementary school are also under capacity.
In her email, Foose said any future consideration of closing the school would follow policy — an advisory committee would be convened of affected stakeholders, a report would be presented to the board and a public hearing would follow. A board decision would be made, an announcement would come 90 days before the school would close and a transition plan would be put in place.
Bacon and Triska are both parents of fifth-graders, so their time at West Friendship is nearly complete. But advocacy is always for the future, Bacon said, and she hopes the community is considered in any future decision regarding the school.
"I hope West Friendship continues to stay open, but if it comes to a point where it gets too old, if the septic breaks, we get it," she said. "But we want to be a part of the solution, so we have a say in how our community is reshaped and reformed if closing the school comes into play."