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Board of Education approves plan to close three schools next year

The Carroll County Board of Education approves superintendent Stephen Guthrie's final recommendation for school closures and redistricting during a special meeting at Westminster High School Dec. 9.

To the disappointment of many in attendance, the Carroll County Board of Education voted 4-1 Wednesday night to move forward with schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie's proposal to shutter three schools next year, after hearing a final round of feedback from community members urging to delay closures.

"I know this has been a very difficult time," board president Jim Doolan said, adding, "I do believe in this school system, I do believe in the parents and I do believe in the kids."

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Guthrie's plan closes three schools next year — Charles Carroll Elementary, New Windsor Middle and North Carroll High — and will authorize a committee to revisit an additional two school closures for the following year, as well as comprehensive countywide redistricting. Guthrie estimates closing the three schools will save the school system about $5.2 million in operating costs before offset costs associated with the closures.

The decision was made to downsize the school system to adjust to declining student enrollment, which has resulted in less state aid to the system.

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School board member Devon Rothschild voted against the plan. Rothschild read from a prepared statement before voting, saying that she fully supports school closures but had reservations about the plan.

"I have concerns about the piecemeal approach to solving our comprehensive problem. Without seeing the entire plans for comprehensive school closures and redistricting I am concerned our hands become tied in addressing other facility concerns in the near future," Rothschild said, reading from the statement.

The final vote, made after board members read statements and spoke to explain their decisions, elicited an outcry from community members in the auditorium.

Doolan read from a prepared statement, saying that the process from the beginning has been transparent and forward, although many community members who urged the board to delay the decision at the meeting said they believed otherwise.

"Modernizations and those types of things have been requested for years and not funded; the board and the superintendent have been trying to create efficiencies with limited resources," Doolan said. "Improvements to instructional programs, along with salary increases for teachers and staff, has been my top priority. But we have not been succesful in receiving those funds, resulting in recruitment and retainment problems and cuts in staff."

Guthrie said at the meeting that he made the decision not to include members from the community on the Boundary Adjustment Committee, which determined boundary adjustments and school closures, because the school system tried that approach in 2002 and the process was drawn out.

But Doolan said that although parents and community members were not included in determining school closure and redistricting options, it doesn't mean the work of the committee and the superintendent was not thorough or valid.

"The school board has to do their part to ask the county and state to step up and support funding for the school system," he said. "We finally have a collaborative relationship with the county government, and together we are developing a five-year plan," Doolan said.

The decision was made after a joint meeting on Tuesday of county school officials, the Board of Commissioners, members of the county's state delegation and a representative from Gov. Larry Hogan's office. In this meeting officials discussed an announcement made last week that Hogan plans to allocate an additional $4 million in aid to the school system in his fiscal year 2017 budget to stave off school closures to allow the school system to devise a more comprehensive plan.

At the meeting, Keiffer Mitchell, an advisor in Hogan's administration who fielded questions about the funding, told school officials the funding would not be contingent on their decision either way. But the board ultimately decided that the one-time funding would not be enough to delay their decision to close schools.

"It's pretty clear that this is a short-term decision," Hampstead Mayor Christopher Nevin said. "They heard from numerous people that closing schools, while an option, they're not closing the right three schools to correct the problem."

Nevin is one of eight mayors of Carroll County's eight municipalities who issued a joint statement on school closures Friday about the long-term implications of closing schools, requesting that Guthrie take additional time to review alternative options.

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The community will have 30 days to file an appeal with the Maryland State Department of Education. Nevin said it is "to be determined" whether he will contend the decision.

The school system's next steps will be to form a transition committee, finalize plans for relocating the autism program, evaluate the staff needed at each school and assess what technology is needed at the schools, Guthrie said after the meeting.

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