School closures have been a hot-button issue in Carroll County over the past year.
In July, the Carroll County Board of Education voted to hold off discussing more school closures until the new board is seated. This came after three schools were closed when board members voted 4-1 in December 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 2015-16 school year.
Earlier versions of the plans called for the closure of two other schools — Mount Airy and Sandymount elementaries — but Guthrie did not recommend those for closure. Carroll schools officials have said the decision to close schools was made because of declining enrollment systemwide and that the closures would save more than $5 million per year.
January brought five appeals challenging the legality and necessity of the closures. And in the 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.
Appellants responded by filing exceptions, an act that sent the process into the state board's hands. The state board voted in June to uphold the closures.
Four candidates are running for two seats on the nonpartisan Carroll County Board of Education. They are retired Carroll County schools teacher Marsha Herbert, of Westminster; Howard County teacher Julie Kingsley, of Mount Airy; former Carroll County schools instructional assistant Mary Kowalski, of Westminster; and actuary Donna Sivigny, of Finksburg.
The Times reached out to all four candidates to ask how they would address the possibility of more closures, if they supported that option and, if so, which schools they would suggest.
This is the third question in a five-day series leading up to the start of early voting, which runs Oct. 27 to Nov. 3. Election day is Nov. 8. The candidates were asked to respond in 150 words or less.
We cannot ignore the fact that CCPS enrollments are continuing to decline. Money is not coming from the federal government or the state of Maryland to fund empty seats. In fours years, our enrollment will drop an additional 1,600 students. The BOE has kicked the can down the road — redistricting should have been done 20 years ago and now the county is in a real pinch.
Transparency is the key to the process for school closures and redistricting; the BOE must meaningfully involve everyone involved and actually listen to members of the community, parents, students and taxpayers. There will be no public comment to an empty stage when I am serving on the BOE.
I am not a fan of closing schools and do not believe it will solve our funding challenges. Residents like having community schools but Carroll County is semi-rural, with low population density. Unless we want to close community schools and bus our children very far from home, we require more buildings than other counties.
Negative effects from closures will worsen our local economy. Closures discourage families from moving here and encourage current families to leave. As a result, we could see accelerated decline in enrollments, the tax base and property values. We cannot continue to close schools year after year.
Declining enrollments do need to be addressed. If the county develops a long-term plan which clearly shows that closing more schools will save money, improve the school system and help our county thrive, then an appropriate process for closing schools should be considered.
On the surface, it sounds fiscally responsible to close schools. However, after considering all of the facts, it is clear that downsizing our school system is short-sighted and counterproductive. In terms of the budget, rather than spend $86 million to build a new Career and Tech Center, it makes far better sense to use the surplus space in our schools for Career and Tech programs which cannot fit in the current Career and Tech Center. While it has not yet found its way on paper, there has been a great deal of talk regarding building a kindergarten through eighth grade school as well.
If we had more money than we knew what to do with, I suppose we could close old schools and then build new ones. However, money doesn't grow on trees, and we simply cannot afford to plunge our school system deeper in debt by building new schools.
Student enrollment is steadily decreasing. It's likely that more buildings need to be retired. Just as we need to build more buildings when enrollment goes up … we need to decrease buildings when enrollment goes down. It's not popular, it's not easy. But it will need to happen in a logical, comprehensive fashion that solves the longer-term problem.
There is an opportunity to create a long-term vision and improve our school system. Let's retire our poorest condition buildings and focus on keeping schools as local as possible, especially at the elementary level, to service our rural communities. It makes the most sense at this point to do some grade reconfiguration. I believe we can keep sixth-graders within the elementary school model and consolidate our middle schools with only seventh- and eighth-graders. Then, use existing high school classroom space around the county to increase capacity for Career and Tech.