Superintendent, board balk at idea of closing schools in face of falling enrollments

Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie and members of the Board of Education this week strongly affirmed there will be no school closings at this time in any areas of the county.

"Any decision to close facilities would affect every public school child in Carroll," Guthrie began. "It would also result in redistricting throughout the county."

Speaking to a capacity crowd at the board's Oct. 10 meeting in the Charles I. Ecker Boardroom, Guthrie said that despite declining student enrollment, a Comprehensive Facility Utilization Study the system began in April was intended to look at all facilities in order to ensure that the county was using all of the school space in the most efficient manner.

Guthrie had commissioned assistant superintendent of administration Jonathan O'Neal and Steve Johnson, the county's director of instructional services, to conduct a study to "identify, justify, and recommend actions for the most effective and efficient use of capital resources."

The cost of school maintenance and operation were among the primary criteria used for determining if schools might close. But after a presentation by O'Neal at Wednesday's meeting, Guthrie expressed concern about any possible closures.

"This should not be rushed," Guthrie said. "As I looked at the end product, I'm not comfortable with the criteria used to select the closing of schools. So, I have stopped the process at this point."

Guthrie suggested that the county hire an independent third party, which would recommend whether school closures are necessary. In addition, the school board and the Board of County Commissioners will hold a joint public meeting in December to discuss the issues of facility use and school closures.

As opposed to any closings, a system-wide redistricting plan included in the study could solve the problem of the capacity imbalance that now exists across the county. That plan would allow for a more balanced allocation of resources throughout the system, and provide clean feeder patterns in each community, the study said.

The study also looked at other options, such as relocating the school system's central office to empty school space.

Guthrie said declining revenues have forced the school system to reduce its operating expenses by $20 million over the past five years. But a school population that has shrunk by 250 students since 2009 led to countywide rumors about the closure of schools.

Carroll is one of just four state school systems that are decreasing in enrollment. At Wednesday's meeting, Guthrie and members of the school board got specific about the dwindling enrollment numbers and the effect of declining revenues.

In his opening statement, Guthrie gave a breakdown of student enrollment at each level of the system. The county's elementary schools have gained 192 students since 2005, and are at 87 percent capacity. Middle schools, which are 90 percent filled, have lost 741 pupils; while the high schools are at 84 percent capacity despite losing 842 students in the past seven years.

"The school system as a whole is at 89 percent of capacity," Guthrie said.

"In 2005, we had 28,194 students. This year, we're down to 26,838," he said. "We have 4,000 empty seats, and we could lose another 250 over the next few years."

While Guthrie and board members Gary Bauer, Cynthia Foley, Virginia Harrison, Jennifer Seidel and Barbara Shreeve are opposed to closing schools, county commissioner Richard Rothschild had earlier proposed looking at shutting down buildings as a means to reduce operating costs, and funding county schools at the Maintenance of Effort level — which guarantees that local governments will fund schools at the same per-student rate as the previous year.

"If we get funded at the Maintenance of Effort level, I have no place to go," Guthrie said. "If we stay at Maintenance of Effort over the next five years, we must cut another $25 million over that period. We've cut everywhere there is to cut, especially on the maintenance side, which greatly concerns me.

"Do we cut media centers and kindergarten assistants? Do we reduce Outdoor School to one day, or eliminate it completely? Will extracurricular activities be affected? Do we want to expand walking distance for our students?" he asked. "If you don't want that to happen, you must advocate for more funding for public education. Times have to change, starting now."

Board member Cynthia Foley bristled at Rothschild's suggestion, and wasn't in favor of hiring a third party.

"We are being bullied by Commissioner Rothschild," she said. "We shouldn't be trying to appease one commissioner who is trying to bully us. And why would we pay for a study if we don't have a consensus on whether to close a school? Why are we wasting time and putting communities and employees through this? Let's stop this process now, and focus our attention on how to best utilize our buildings."

But county commissioner Doug Howard, who opposes the closing of any schools, supported the idea of a third-party study.

"I like the idea of using an outside organization," Howard said. "At this point, there is no data that indicates a cost savings by closing a school. We're not even close to going through the process that we need to go through.

"I believe that the two boards (school and county commissioners) have to work at this together, as a cooperative effort," Howard said.

Howard reminded the gathering of the financial challenges that face the county commissioners.

"The county is in a sound financial position, but not a lucrative one," he said.

Board of Education President Jennifer Seidel believes that the situation needs to be studied further, and called on county residents to speak up.

"Our communities are centered around our schools, and a panic has been created (about closing schools)" Seidel said. "This board did not put that information out there. We do not have any interest in closing schools.

"We need our communities to get involved now. We are dangerously close to impacting our classrooms," she said. "We need to study this issue further, to make sure that we're using our schools efficiently. I want to have more data that says whether or not we should close schools."

Carroll residents who packed the board room also expressed strong opinions on the school closure issue.

"If you are feeling confused, just imagine the confusion that the communities are feeling," said Kelli Nelson, a parent of a Century High School freshman, in addressing the county officials.

"The schools are at almost 90 percent capacity," said longtime county resident Jean Lewis. "So, there's no need to close."

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