The possibility of a charter school in the former North Carroll High School building — a plan proposed last month by a county commissioner turned Board of Education candidate — continues to be contemplated by county leaders and community members alike, with steps beginning to be taken, though numerous questions still remain.
Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who is one of six candidates running for a seat on the county school board, called a community meeting at the end of July to propose an idea to try to use the former school as a charter school.
Howard told the audience at the meeting at the Carroll County Public Library North Carroll Branch that with additional $17.2 million in federal funding to help create charter schools in Maryland, a nonprofit group should fill out an application together. A school could focus on topics like civics, engineering, agriculture and more.
Since Howard’s meeting, community leaders, including Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, whose district includes the North Carroll building, have been inquiring about the possibility of a charter school there. Still, it’s unclear if the project has the community support needed to bring it to fruition.
“It’s a mixed bag from the community right now,” Weaver said in an interview Tuesday.
Weaver said he has been speaking with community members, town leaders, the school system and the county’s delegation to Annapolis to discuss the pros and cons of forming at charter school at North Carroll, but said he recognizes that it’s a major undertaking.
At this point, he said, the goal is to try to put together a five-member committee or panel to continue to explore the option and to make moves toward creating a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Something that’s important, Weaver said, is making sure that if a charter school is created, it would offer something different and unique to students, not just a duplication of curriculum already being offered by Carroll County Public Schools.
As he continues to put out feelers, Weaver said he’s not discounting any ideas or suggestions.
“If it’s anything that can benefit the community, I’m going to look into it,” he said.
Dawn Nee, a Manchester attorney who filed an appeal on behalf of the North Carroll community to try to stop the closure of the school, said she thinks the idea is worth investigating, she expressed frustration with Howard’s proposal “in that this isn’t a new idea. It’s one that we had come up with initially and it fell on deaf ears.”
Nee said she proposed the concept of a charter or magnet school to county and school officials, and even sent it to the Redistricting and School Closure Committee, but only heard back from two commissioners.
Nee said it makes sense to do something like a charter school, because it could attract students who are in private schools elsewhere. And, she said, if they offer the right programs, it could make the school alluring. She had a few ideas of what types of courses could be offered, like an arts school, like the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Baltimore County.
“We have such a wonderful auditorium [at North Carroll],” she said.
That school also could have a fashion design aspect, in addition to areas of study in musical theater, acting, production design and more, she said.
They could do an agricultural science program, because Carroll is still a very rural county, with many families who run farms. North Carroll already had landscaping programs and was a Green School, Nee said.
There could also be cooperation with the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, which already runs a training academy in the former school, Nee said. A criminal justice program, for example, could help bring in new cadets for Sheriff Jim DeWees, she said.
“I know we’re short in the county,” she added.
Nee said in order for any of this to work, there would need to be commitment from the county commissioners as well to do minor upkeep on the facility. She said in her mind, a charter school could lease a portion of the North Carroll building for 10 years and then the school could go back to being a public school, possibly a magnet school.
“This is a real special community,” Nee said. “They’re really willing to put the work in to make sure our students have the best, and we’re not just focused on our end of town: We’re really focused on the entire county having quality education.”
Nee said she hopes with new CCPS Superintendent Steven Lockard, who began his tenure July 1, this could be a “fresh start.” Carroll was once known for its education system, she said. “We’ve lost that.”
“I think we all think it would be worth pursuing,” Nee said of the community. “It’s also a lot of work to do. We would need some assurance from the school board that they’re going to bless this idea.”
Steps for approval
In order for a charter school to be approved, a group would need to submit a letter of intent to the Board of Education by Jan. 1 of the year before the school were to open, said Greg Bricca, director of research and accountability for Carroll County Public Schools. The group would then have until the first business day in April of that year to submit the application.
The purpose of a charter school, Bricca said, is to offer a program intended to improve education for students. Charter schools would fall under the local school system, and receive per pupil funding. The most recent figure was about $9,500 per student, he said.
Carroll has had two applicants for charter schools in the recent past. One, a Montessori school, was able to gain approval from the school board, but was unable to get a building and the enrollment necessary to open the school. The second, this past spring, came from Silver Oak Academy, which is a private, residential all-boys facility contracted by the state for youth who have been in trouble with the law.
Silver Oak’s application was going to be denied, though Bricca said Silver Oak withdrew its application before that occurred, with plans to come back the following year with an updated proposal.
“It’s a process where [staff] here really do work with the proposed charter group,” Bricca said. “It’s a pretty comprehensive application.”
CCPS’ application is modeled after the state’s.
Bricca said while there may have been community discussions in the past about turning the former North Carroll High School into a charter school, no formal letter of intent or application was submitted.
“No one ever came forward and said, ‘What do we need to do to make a charter school work here?’ ” Bricca said.
Board of Education President Bob Lord, who is seeking re-election, said he remembers there being discussions from the community about trying to open a charter school, but what some don’t understand is that the school board is not the agency that would begin the process. Lord said that while the Board of Education is the group that ultimately approves a charter school, it does not have the authority to propose the idea and start making steps to form the group to create the school.
Lord said while he supports the idea of a charter school, and had been excited for the potential Montessori school a few years ago, what is happening now seems like just a way to save a facility, and it doesn’t make sense to open a school just to use a facility, he said.
Lord also said with upgrades needed at the former North Carroll High, using the building may be costly.
“With such a large building, that’s a big undertaking,” he said. “For an organization to take on the North Carroll property just solely to save it, I don’t think it’s a great idea.”
Lord said he believes the charter school would be responsible for capital improvements in the facility, and even with grant money from the federal government, it wouldn’t be enough. The application deadline for the grant money was July 9 for the next year, and the money would be capped at $900,000 over three years to eligible applicants interested in opening a new charter school, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
“That would only put a slight dent in it,” he added.
Lord said if an applicant came forward, CCPS would devote the time to help them through the application process.
“We can’t just arbitrarily say we don’t want a charter school. In reality, I support a charter school,” he said.
But, he said, with declining enrollment in the county, opening a charter school would hurt the Carroll school system financially, he said.
“It’s an idea,” Lord said of the proposed charter school. “I don’t think it’s a great idea.”
Costs to upgrade, reopen North Carroll
With a proposal on the table and community leaders and citizens beginning to delve into the possibilities, a number of unknowns remain. First and foremost — who would be responsible for work on the building?
Howard, in an interview Tuesday, said conversations have occurred about whether the facility, which is currently owned by county government, would be bought or leased by a charter school. The most practical option, he said, would likely be to rent a portion of the building to a charter school.
“I can’t imagine them wanting to take on the burden of it,” Howard said. “There are a lot of details that still have to be worked [out].”
Scott Moser, the deputy director of Public Works for Carroll County, said there are a number of variables in place, and not a lot of information about what this type of school would look like in that building.
Moser said it’s not clear who would have financial responsibility over the building’s needed updates. Even if it’s leased to a charter school, he said, the school could get grant funding to do the leg work and get the construction done, with the county as a guide.
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Moser also said costs could vary greatly, depending on what work is done.
“If a school could walk in and use it without changing walls and plumbing … you could pick up into the building and use it and it meets codes,” he said.
But, if more than 20 percent of the building is changed, it would require the building be brought up to current code.
Moser did not have specific numbers, but said rough estimates already completed show it could take as much as $500,000 to come up to code, and could cost another $500,000 to replace the fire alarm system, which recently failed, though it has been fixed and is working at the moment.
The roof, which was scheduled for replacement in fiscal year 2023 could cost as much as $4 million, and the HVAC system, which was scheduled to be replaced in fiscal year 2028, could cost $37 million. That figure, Moser said, is a rough estimate based on a study the school board did a while ago.
All of these numbers, he said, are rough estimates and somewhat unknown until plans are firmed up.
“Right now it’s up in the air,” he said, especially because this facility is about 250,000 square feet. “There are a lot options you could throw out there.”