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Motions hearing held in school appeals

A decision on motions to pause the county's move to close three schools and to speed up judgment on behalf of the school system could be issued as early as beginning of next month.

More than a dozen Carroll County residents and school representatives spent the day in Hunt Valley at the Office of Administrative Hearings on Monday making their case in appeals to the Board of Education's decision to close three county schools at the end of the school year.

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Five appeals have been filed against the school board's December decision to close North Carroll High, New Windsor Middle and Charles Carroll Elementary schools. On Monday, attorneys for the board argued on behalf of a motion for summary affirmance, which would speed up the appeals process by determining, based on the facts presented, that the school board acted appropriately and legally in its decision.

For all three schools, school board attorneys argued that the decision to close the schools was neither arbitrary, unreasonable or illegal.

The job of the board, Edmund O'Meally, attorney for the school system, told the court, is a difficult one, especially at a time when the school system is experiencing declining enrollment and state funding.

"It is a job where you make no friends in deciding school boundaries," said O'Meally. "But make no mistake, that decision has to be made."

Positions and programs, he said, have been cut, and the board had to consider other options while keeping in mind the quality of the entire school system as a whole.

While not everyone may agree with the decision on which schools would be shuttered, he argued, the school system did not act outside its authority in deciding to close them.

North Carroll High School, O'Meally told the court, was facing a future in which it was only at 59-percent of its state-rated capacity by 2024. Manchester Valley High School, he said, was projected to be just 55-percent full by 2024.

Combining the two schools into Manchester Valley will put Manchester Valley at 100 percent of its state capacity, he said in reference to concerns that have been expressed by some opponents of the closure, but with several students leaving during the day to attend courses at the Career and Technology Center and Carroll Community College, combined with an enrollment that is expected to continue to decline, it will not be a concern, he said.

The decision to close New Windsor Middle, O'Meally said, provided a solution to a situation in which two surrounding middle schools — Northwest Middle and Mount Airy Middle — were both facing low enrollment. Additionally, he said, the split of New Windsor Middle students into the other two schools will allow for feeder alignment, where students will stay with each other through middle and high school.

The biggest issue in the case of Charles Carroll Elementary, O'Meally said, was the condition of the school, which was originally constructed in 1929, though there have been additions made since. Faced with the steep cost of repairs that would be necessary to keep the school open and functioning, he said, it was determined that students could be split effectively between Ebb Valley Elementary, Runnymede Elementary and William Winchester.

In all three decisions, O'Meally said, the Board of Education was acting legally in its authorized quasilegislative role.

Appellants and their representatives argued that the Board of Education did not follow procedure in deciding to close the three schools.

Baltimore attorney Donald J. Walsh, whose nephew is a student at North Carroll and a listed appellant, accused the school system of "back filling" its justifications for closing the schools.

While the Board of Education says its responsibility to take local communities into account in deciding on whether to close schools extends only so far as to guarantee that students in those communities are afforded a quality education, Walsh told Administrative Law Judge Harriet Helfand that the school board should have looked at all aspects of the community that may be affected by closures.

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He said the board's decision not to conduct traffic studies ahead of the decision showed that they it not adhere to its responsibility to look at the affect on the towns in which the schools are located.

Appellants argued that the decision on which schools to close was not made in December, at the official vote, but earlier, when the school board approved a facilities master plan that indicated some schools considered for closure.

Walsh pointed to emails and text messages obtained by appellants through the appeals process that revealed school and county officials talking about possible plans to use one of the closed buildings as a Central Office for the school system in the future.

"There is no doubt at all that that was the original intent," he said, adding that the school system's argument that the closures save needed money is made moot by the costs that will be incurred by moving Central Office.

Walsh and other appellants requested that the Office of Administrative Hearings place a temporary hold on the school system's closure of the schools until a decision on appeals is issued.

Doing so, Walsh said, would save parents, teachers and students from making plans to attend a new school next year only to find out their school may stay open. It would also stop the school system from moving ahead with any future plans to close more schools before the process the Board of Education followed for these three closures can be reviewed.

"How can you even begin the second phase of this until this is decided?" he asked.

Motions to dismiss some appellants' cases based on a lack of standing, or because of filing errors, were also heard on Monday.

Written decisions on the motions can be expected by early May, Helfand said.

410-857-3315

Twitter.com/heatherleighnor

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