Sens. Justin Ready, left, and Katie Fry Hester, right, co-sponsored a bill, which became law, that allows the school systems of Carroll and Howard counties to create a school that works across district lines.
Sens. Justin Ready, left, and Katie Fry Hester, right, co-sponsored a bill, which became law, that allows the school systems of Carroll and Howard counties to create a school that works across district lines. (Courtesy photo/ Katie Fry Hester)

A bill that went into effect at the beginning of October enables the school systems in Carroll and Howard counties to create a school that works across district lines.

The school systems have no immediate plans to act on it, but the senators behind the legislation hope it could be a tool to alleviate enrollment woes and possibly offer magnet school opportunities in the future.

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The bill, filed as SB653, officially went into effect Oct. 1 and authorizes the two school systems to “establish innovative regional schools subject to certain requirements and approval.”

The bill defines an innovative regional school as a public school that admits students from Carroll or Howard and includes special courses or curricula “for an innovative program.”

State Sen. Katie Fry Hester, a Democrat from District 9, which includes parts of Howard and a portion of southern Carroll, came up with the idea for the legislation and found support from Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican from District 5, which covers much of Carroll.

“The idea was that we should more or less think outside the box,” Fry Hester said. “Because the county lines are a box in which the school system operates. And if it makes sense for two adjacent or three adjacent counties to collaborate, they should be able to do that as long as it’s in a way that preserves the best interest of the teachers and the students.”

The senators intended for the legislation to leave a lot of room for the counties to decide what a project might look like for themselves.

Howard and Carroll would be required to draft a memorandum of understanding over the governance, operations, maintenance and financing of the regional school.

It wouldn’t necessarily need to involve new construction. An existing school building could become the site of a regional school.

In the House Ways and Means Committee, legislators added in provisions that are meant to address equity in the process of who can attend the school, cost sharing between the districts, and work and pay conditions for employees of the school.

“I think that it’s an idea whose time has come,” she said. “But it does require research and thinking and this balance of letting the localities be creative and innovative, and not stifling it with too much state oversight.”

Ready’s office had not responded to a request for comment by Saturday evening.

As of the official date the bill went into effect, the Carroll and Howard school systems had mostly identical stances on an upcoming project.

In a statement, Carroll County Public Schools said that no significant conversation had taken place.

“We appreciate the thought behind the legislation because it opens up discussion about the concept. There would certainly be tremendous logistics to be considered," the statement reads.

Similarly, Howard County Public School System’s stance was, “We are aware of the legislation and appreciate the flexibility it seeks to provide if either district should want to explore the concept. At this point though, there have not been any conversations in Howard County about exploring the possibilities now permitted by this legislation.”

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Fry Hester said conversations she had while campaigning created the catalyst for the legislation. She said school closures and low enrollment in Carroll kept coming up, and Howard residents had expressed concerns about overcrowding there. And at the same time Howard is facing that issue, the former North Carroll High School building was not being used, she pointed out.

The first version of the bill proposed to give any pair or group of school districts in Maryland the ability to establish a regional school.

For now, the bill that became law serves as a sort of pilot that only includes Carroll and Howard.

Both school systems testified favorably about the bill, Fry Hester said. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education took no position, according to a legislative session summary.

A similar bill this past General Assembly session authorized four Eastern Shore counties to work together to establish a regional school focused on career and technology education.

Since the first iteration of the Howard-Carroll bill, some things have changed, Fry Hester said. Carroll is actually projected for some enrollment size growth, especially in the southern end of the county closest to Howard. Another possibility, she said, is that the legislation might allow the two districts to split the cost of a construction project in the area.

She also hopes to see more opportunities for students come out of the “innovative” part of the legislation in the form of a magnet school, schools that offer specialized curricula — whether that’s cybersecurity, agriculture, fine arts, language immersion or other possibilities.

Still, any regional school project seems to be a thought for the future.

In Howard, a recently announced comprehensive redistricting plan has sparked heated debate. That’s a reason to put a hold on a regional school project, Fry Hester said.

“You don’t want to think about this, when you’re in the middle of a redistricting process itself. You want to be thinking about this — as you would be to bring any new school online — three to four years down the road. But at least now there is precedent at the local level for this,” she said.

Another part of the bill gives a new task to the state group that determines the cost-share for school construction projects between the state and local districts. By a deadline of Jan. 1, 2020, the Interagency Commission on School Construction is tasked with coming up with a formula for the state and local cost-share for a school operated by more than one school district.

School funding is shaping up to be a prominent political topic as the 2020 session approaches.

Statewide, legislators are closely following news from the Kirwan Commission, the commonly used name for the body formed to make recommendations for improving state schools. Their proposals, including a revised funding formula, are expected to be the most significant — and likely contentious — topic of the session.

Fry Hester said the Kirwan Commission feels like it’s taking up all the energy and resources right now.

Once that goes through, then we could say, ‘Oh, well, this is what Kirwan means for my county. This is what Kirwan means for your county. Is there a way we can collaborate to kind of double down on this?’ "

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