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Appeals filed to contest Board of Education decision to close three schools

Community members will not allow three schools slated for closure next year to be shuttered without continuing to put up a fight.

Last month, the Carroll County Board of Education voted to close three schools — Charles Carroll Elementary, New Windsor Middle and North Carroll High — for the 2016-17 school year to reduce the school system's operating costs. Five appeals have been filed with the Maryland State Board of Education by various community groups to contest the decision.

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The deadline to file an appeal was Monday.

Four appeals were filed pro se, or on behalf of themselves without legal representation, and another was filed by Baltimore attorney Donald J. Walsh and Manchester attorney Dawn Nee on behalf of North Carroll High School students, the mayors of Hampstead and Manchester, the North Carroll Recreation Council, and two Hampstead businesses. Walsh's nephew, a student at North Carroll High, is listed as one of the appellants.

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The appeal process ordinarily takes a period of months. Appeals of school closings will be transferred to the Office of Administrative Hearings, where an administrative law judge will conduct a hearing and issue a proposed decision, said William Reinhard, a Maryland State Department of Education spokesman.

The judge will then issue a decision to the State Board of Education. If the appellants or CCPS files exceptions to the judge's proposed decision, oral arguments are held before the State Board of Education, typically at the opening of a state board meeting, Reinhard said. The state board issues the final decision in the appeal.

"The State Board of Education takes this process very seriously," Reinhard said. "It will review the decisions and may ask for testimony."

The standard of review in school closing cases requires that an appellant prove a decision by a local school board was arbitrary, unreasonable or illegal for the decision to be overturned by the state board. Three opinions have been issued by the State Board of Education in the past 15 years on school closing appeals, according to the MSDE website. In all three instances, local school board decisions were upheld.

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The most recent, issued in October, affirmed a decision to close Langston Hughes Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, largely due to low student enrollment. The state board found that the school, one of three recommended for accelerated closure in Baltimore City last summer, was not arbitrarily singled out. The school is now closed.

Manchester attorney Mike Stewart said that given what he knows about the State Board of Education's rulings on past appeals, "If you get an actual hearing before the Office of Administrative Hearings, you would be the Neil Armstrong of school board appeals in Maryland because you'd be the first to set foot in that room; the standard of review makes it exceedingly difficult to prevail in these hearings."

In the appeal filed by attorneys Walsh and Nee, they argue that Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie's decision did not comply with state procedural requirements listed under the Code of Maryland Regulations, or COMAR, alleging that that the county Board of Education did not provide adequate written notification of public hearings held Dec. 1-3 before making its decision to close schools and that Guthrie had already made his final decision to close schools without regard for public impact or concern.

Other arguments made in the appeal allege that Guthrie failed to evaluate each of the eight of the COMAR factors governing school closures and there were conflicts of interest in the budgeting process, perpetuated by goals set by the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.

"The Commissioners' decision quite obviously had the effect of holding any school funding hostage unless the board conceded to its wishes and desires. In making this decision, not only were the county commissioners legislating the policy of the Board of Education, which they are not permitted to do, but the county commissioners clearly had an unresolved conflict of interest," the appeal states.

Guthrie would not comment on the appeals filed, but would say, "We feel confident with the process that was used, and we feel confident that it would hold up to the scrutiny of an appeal."

Hampstead Mayor Christopher Nevin said that both towns have set up an escrow account for people from the towns who would like to provide financial support in the legal process. A news release sent by the Town of Hampstead on Friday, said the town has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise donations to help defray legal costs and had raised more than $7,000 toward the cause as of Friday.

Manchester Mayor Ryan Warner said he is hopeful the county school board will consider an independent review of the decision.

"Based on my understanding, I think that the appeal has some merits that could likely lead to its success," he said. "Hopefully the county is willing to at least have a hearing to have an independent party to decide the merits of the appeal."

Nevin said the towns wouldn't have filed an appeal if they thought it wasn't an appropriate action to take.

"We think the appeal definitely has merit and we'll see where it goes," he said.

Pro se appeals

Another appeal, seeking the decision be voided and reversed, was filed by Hampstead resident Lori Wolf, a parent of three children enrolled in Carroll County Public Schools, one of whom attends North Carroll High School. In the appeal, Wolf argues that the decision of the Board of Education to close schools was arbitrary, illegal and unreasonable, because the decision was "contrary to sound education policy" for reasons stated by board member Devon Rothschild, the only voting member of the board who voted against closing the schools.

Wolf also alleges the decision is illegal under COMAR regulations because it did not provide sufficient evidence to address two of the eight regulations governing school closures, and because the decision "resulted from an unlawful procedure, namely, that the superintendent failed to follow the locally-adopted procedure of the [Board of Education]."

Wolf said she feels like she has a good chance of having the decision overturned.

"I've heard the state board doesn't just rubber stamp these things anymore," she said. "The governor stepped in with $4 million in stopgap funding, we have eight mayors from the local municipalities, at least one commissioner who disagreed with this process, and we have a Board of Education member, Devon Rothschild, who voted no."

Don Garmer, of Westminster, who grew up in Hampstead and is an alumnus of North Carroll High, also filed an appeal seeking to overturn the decision to close all three schools.

Garmer said he believes the process used by the school system to determine which schools to close wasn't done in a fair way.

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"Ultimately I'd like to see all the schools stay open because they're important to the people. I'd like to see a more important process that involves the public," Garmer said. "I think everyone could live with it better if the public was involved."

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Charles Carroll

An appeal filed by Charles Carroll Elementary School parents and other members of the Silver Run and Union Mills communities, that also lists "all other affected current and future school-aged children" as appellants, seeks to overturn the board's decision to close schools but more specifically the decision to close Charles Carroll Elementary and to redistrict students to other schools.

Tara Battaglia, a board member of the Friends of Save Charles Carroll Elementary School Association and one of the appellants, said her hope with the appeal is, "that everything gets put on hold for a year at least; we're even hopeful with the K-8 school from the commissioners, which would combine three schools into one."

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, reiterated in the commissioners State of the County Address Tuesday that he would like the county to consider scrapping a plan to build a new Career and Technology Center in order to build a kindergarten through eighth-grade school that the County Board of Commissioners voted against last April.

New Windsor

Another appeal was filed by 54 community members with a connection to New Windsor Middle School, which argues that the decision was arbitrary and unreasonable because it was, "contradictory, illogical and, in some cases, contrary to sound educational policy." It states that the decision is illegal because, "it results from an abuse of discretionary powers, misconstrues the law and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act."

The appeal also notes the school system will keep aging Westminster East Middle School open, alleging the school is noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and, "operates on a compliance waiver."

Ray Prokop, director of school facilities for CCPS, said he was not aware of any compliance waiver for East Middle. The school system has to manage around issues with ADA accessibility at East Middle because the school has stairs, but does make accommodations for disabled students, he said.

"We're trying to get money to modernize that school because accessibility is a concern," Prokop said.

Union Bridge resident Elizabeth Galaida, who is serving as point person for the appeal, said it doesn't make sense to close New Windsor Middle and keep East Middle open.

"Every Carroll Countian needs to know that this decision affects them. We as a county cannot afford the price tag to renovate East Middle or to build a new school, particularly without state support. Closing New Windsor Middle means we will have to do exactly that," Galaida said.

Neal Roop, mayor of New Windsor, said the New Windsor Town Council decided not to file an appeal because, although it disagreed with the decision, it felt the town did not have enough legal basis for an appeal.

However, the town has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice that has been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Education because students in the regional autism program currently located at New Windsor Middle will be required to travel further distances to school, Roop said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said because it is the organization's policy to only acknowledge or confirm complaints once they have moved to the investigation phase, he would neither confirm nor deny receipt of the complaint because there are currently no investigations open at Carroll public schools. The department's Office for Civil Rights evaluates all complaints it receives, and if, after evaluation, the office opens an investigation of the case, it will inform the institution, the complainant and the public, as it finds appropriate.

"We're not letting New Windsor Middle close without a fight," Roop said.

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