SILVER RUN — When Emily Brown moved to the Silver Run community with her husband, Robert, 15 years ago, their decision was based in part on the community's small elementary school, Charles Carroll.
At that time, the couple had heard rumors of the school's closure circulating, Brown said, leading the couple to become involved about 10 years ago in a community effort to keep the school.
The Carroll County Board of Education approved Carroll County Public Schools' 2015-2024 Educational Facilities Master Plan on June 10 without a capital project for the replacement or modernization of Charles Carroll Elementary. Approval of the plan wasn't a direct decision to close the school, but it signals an intention to close it.
"This is the closest we've ever come, so we've had to be motivated like we've never been," Brown said. The couple has three school-age children — a second-grader, a sixth-grader and a 10th-grader.
They were two of 13 community members and two children who met Monday night at a pavilion on the grounds of the school, tucked away off Littlestown Pike about four miles south of the Pennsylvania border, to discuss their plans to keep Charles Carroll open.
In response to the looming possibility that the school will close, a group of parents have established Friends of Save our School Charles Carroll Elementary Association.
"It shows unity, it shows organization, it shows strength as a whole, it helps with communication — I think it helps keep our mission separate from other organizations," Kiersten Meyers, whose daughter will be a third-grader at the school next year, told the group.
At Monday's meeting, the group agreed to form a charter and a board comprised of community representatives, and to seek nonprofit status.
CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie made a past statement that he recommended the school for closure after the 2015-16 academic year because there is no capital project included in the county's 2016-2021 Community Investment Plan and because of declining enrollment numbers.
"The realities are that while there are compelling reasons to keep Charles Carroll open, and I understand those, the reality is that for a dozen years, [the school board] has asked for a project that was not funded, and the other reality is that we have excess capacity," Guthrie said at the board's June 10 meeting.
Total enrollment for the school system dropped for the ninth consecutive year and is projected to decline until 2022, according to the Facilities Master Plan.
In September, the school board is expected to consider countywide proposed boundary line adjustments and will discuss closing Charles Carroll, Guthrie said. The school system in September and October will solicit feedback from the public on boundary line adjustment changes and the closure of the school. And the school board will make its final decision in November, he said.
Charles Carroll Elementary, built in 1929, is the oldest public school building in Carroll County and, according to school officials, is in need of upgrades, a major reason CCPS is considering shuttering the school after the 2015-16 school year.
Meyers, a current member of the school's PTA, said she first signed a petition to keep the school open 13 years ago. Over that time, she and other parents have grown frustrated with the constant threat of losing the school, she said.
"I think the level of frustration for me is we've been fighting to keep our school in our community for so long and we have had so many 'promises' made in some respect that are not being kept," Meyers said, adding that stakeholders have attended many meetings requesting that their school be repaired or replaced.
"The community, I feel, has been loud and clear in saying, 'Keep the school in our community,' " Meyers said. "Our children deserve a quality education just like rest of the county, and that doesn't mean they need to be bussed further away — it means they deserve a community school, close to their friends who are local."
Parents have expressed concern that children's bus rides will be longer if the school is closed.
Brown argued that the school already has some of the county's longest bus routes, which will only become longer if the school is redistricted.
"We are already the longest and that is without moving us further away," Brown said. "I can't imagine my 6-year-old spending over an hour on a bus — that is just crazy."
A morning bus route from Bixler Church Road and Jerusalem Lutheran Church takes 45 minutes to get to Charles Carroll in the morning and 50 minutes in the evening, according to information from CCPS. If children are bussed to schools that are farther away — such as Runnymeade or William Winchester elementary schools, both of which are about seven miles away — Brown said she worries children could have bus rides that are close to 70 minutes long each way.
"They're going to be holding their little bladders and … how much of their time are they losing not doing rec, not doing Scouting — that's a lot of time for a [child] to spend on a bus," Brown said.
Guthrie said at a May 19 meeting that no student at Charles Carroll will have a bus ride longer than any other student in the county.
But Brown said she is worried that the information about bus times won't be considered by the Boundary Line Adjustment Committee that is looking at redistricting.
"We need to take a proactive approach," Brown said.
However, Guthrie wrote in an email, "The Boundary Line Adjustment Committee will make recommendations when they present in September on ride time for Charles Carroll Elementary students."
"We are certainly ... able to add buses to shorten ride times if needed. All of that information will be a part of the presentation. We do not have any specific ride time limits in our regulations," he added.
Those who attended the meeting were particularly concerned about money allocated by the Carroll County Board of Commissioners for a school replacement during the fiscal year 2015 budget cycle. According to budget session minutes from April 29, 2014, the board approved $13.4 million of local funding in FY16 and FY17 for the replacement of Charles Carroll and $285,000 for a new roof, which was included in the 2015-2020 Community Investment Plan.
Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, who spoke in support of keeping the school open at a May 20 Board of Education meeting, voted in favor of allocating funding for the project in 2014 when he was a commissioner.
"I think that that school is extremely important to that community," Shoemaker said in an interview with the Carroll County Times. "It would be a shame for that part of the county to not have a school — [it] is a focal point for that community. I could understand the desire to streamline the school system in the wake of declining enrollment across the board, but in the same token, the same logic I used as a commissioner to vote for a replacement or rehabilitation of that school still applies today."
However, Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, who voted against providing funding for the school, said his decision was based upon declining enrollment trends in the county.
"Our school system is currently sized for 31,000 students and by 2022-2023 we will be down to 23,000 students, so our school system is too big, which means we're trying to carry too much overhead on the backs of too few students, and therefore the school system is going to have to decommission several schools," Rothschild said. "The fact of the matter is that Charles Carroll is an older school and a lot of repairs are needed, and I think that one of the reasons why it became a candidate for closure is because it would take millions and millions of dollars to get that school back into shape."
When the commissioners adopted the FY 2015-2020 CIP, they included planned funding in FY16 and FY17 for Charles Carroll. Included in the plan was the authorization to spend money, which could be cash or an assumption that bonds would be issued, according to Ted Zaleski, the county's director of management and budgets.
The Charles Carroll project was requested by the Board of Education in their Capital Improvement Plan and received state approval, Guthrie said. However, Guthrie said at the time, that funding allocated by the commissioners could serve as a placeholder to pay for the consolidated kindergarten through eighth-grade school should the project be favored over replacing Charles Carroll.
When the current board of commissioners was elected, after the FY15 budget cycle concluded, the Board of Education approached newly elected commissioners asking for funding for a consolidated K-8 school, which would have addressed the aging infrastructure of three schools — William Winchester and Charles Carroll elementary schools, and Westminster East Middle School, Guthrie said. The project was added to the school system's Facilities Master Plan in 2014.
However, the commissioners voted not to include the approximately $72 million project in the 2016-2021 CIP at an April 7 meeting.
"Considering the fact that we have too much space right now, it seems to me that our scarce money should be going toward teachers, not buildings," Rothschild said. "And I think that the vast majority of commissioners and Board of Education members agreed … that we should put people ahead of buildings."
Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who voted to support funding for Charles Carroll in the FY15 budget cycle, said that part of the issue has been a disconnect between the two boards, who work from separate plans.
"When you're working from two different plans, it's difficult to get things to match up," Howard said, adding that both boards have agreed to hold a series of joint meetings to get on the same page.
Commissioner Steve Wantz, R-District 1, who voted against funding the consolidated K-8 school along with the rest of the board, said he is reluctant to take a stance on the issue until he knows all the facts.
"I came into this without knowing all of the details and that has put me in a difficult situation," said Wantz, whose district includes the school. He will be meeting with Guthrie and school staff to get a better understanding of the state of the school, and is asking his staff to compile information about how the commissioners have voted for the past eight years.
"I'm doing all this research in order to make a better decision," he said.
The commissioners decided to remove the Charles Carroll project as part of the FY16 budget process to free dedicated revenue, Zaleski said. Supporters of saving the school said they wondered what happened to the county funds allocated for the Charles Carroll project.
"It isn't as if money was sitting in one place and moved to another," Zaleski said. "Any number of things can change from one six-year plan to another, so it isn't always possible to say planned funding was moved from X to Y."
However, Zaleski said the school Capital Improvement Plan is different than the county CIP because there is some dedicated revenue.
"If we decrease planned funding for one school project, we increase what is available for another school project, or vice versa," he said. "They made a separate decision to include a Career and Tech replacement. I guess you could make a case that the planned funding went from [Charles Carroll to the Tech Center], but it really didn't happen that way."
The board opted to allocate planned funding for the design and construction of the new Career and Technology Center in FY19 and FY20, according to the 2016-2021 CIP.
Howard, who serves as president of the board of commissioners, said declining enrollment has made the idea of building a new school difficult.
"We're very concerned because enrollment is down, but the Charles Carroll situation is unique because of its geography — there isn't much out there besides the school," Howard said. "It's hard to say we're going to take a school out of that area and not have one there."