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Parents argue at meeting against closing Charles Carroll

Dozens of parents and community members, adorned with buttons that read, "Keep Charles Carroll Open," filled the Carroll County Public Schools building's Charles I. Ecker Boardroom on Wednesday night to voice their concerns about the possible closure of Charles Carroll Elementary School.

About 20 speakers gave impassioned arguments to school officials, who will decide whether to keep the aging school open. Before community members spoke, CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie explained that the Board of Education will not vote to close Charles Carroll at their next meeting but will vote to approve the Facilities Master Plan for the whole school system. That decision, however, will be connected to closing the school in the future.

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Although the meeting was held to gain public input on proposed revisions to the school system's 2015-2024 Education Facilities Master Plan, seemingly everyone attended the meeting to hear what will happen to Charles Carroll, which could close after the 2015-16 school year.

Other highlights in the plan include the development of options for William Winchester Elementary and East Middle if modernizations are not funded for the aging schools and the replacement of the Carroll County Career and Technology Center beginning in fiscal year 2019, a project that was included in the county's 2016-2021 Capital Improvement Program.

Parents and Silver Run community members told officials that closing the school would not only affect students who attend the school, but also local churches, recreation, real estate property values and businesses.

Of about 20 people who signed up to give their input, Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, was the first to speak.

Shoemaker, a former county commissioner, said that about three budget cycles ago, he and Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, made a pitch to include capital funding for the construction of a new Charles Carroll building, but their motion lost, 3-2.

"That school up there produces, by all accounts, a quality education to the kids there, but in addition to that, it's a focal point for the community," Shoemaker said. "We were also concerned about the impact of closing that school on real estate in the community."

Parents acknowledged the need for repairs to the building but said they want to see the school, which is the center of their community, remain. They said it is used for recreation and gatherings in the rural community off Md. 97, and they worry that an empty building would cause their property values to plummet.

Doug Brewer, 51, owner of Brewer's Market Inc. in the Silver Run community, said his family history is tied to Charles Carroll Elementary.

"Silver Run is my home. I went to Charles Carroll, my sister went to Charles Carroll. … We've always tried to support the school, and the school supports us," Brewer said. "It's really important to have that school there, and without the school, I feel it would really impact my business."

Over the past eight years, Brewer said, he has faced economic challenges and the loss of the school could put him out of business.

"If I'm out of business — there goes another part of the community that is out," he said.

According to the master plan, the physical condition of the four schools is considered poor, meaning they are scheduled for renovation or closing within the next five years. Of all schools in the county, Charles Carroll, built in 1929, is the oldest and in need of upgrades, and that's why the school system is looking at closing the school.

Guthrie said that because there is no capital project for the school and because of declining enrollment, his recommendation would be to close the school after the 2015-16 school year.

Problems with the building include its lack of Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, steam pipes that are beginning to deteriorate and a private septic system that is expected to fail soon, Bill Caine, facilities planner for CCPS, said last week.

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The cost of a replacement school or modernization would cost about $20 million, estimated in a 2012 feasibility study prepared for CCPS by Hord Coplan Macht. Should the facility close, it would save the county about $750,000 in annual costs to operate the school, according to Christopher Hartlove, chief financial officer of the school system.

Feedback from the meeting will be shared with the Board of Education, which will vote to approve the Education Facilities Master Plan at its June 10 monthly meeting. According to the master plan, the decision to close a school will be announced at least 90 days before the school is scheduled to be closed but not later than April 30 of any school year, except in emergency circumstances.

Next November, the Board of Education will decide whether to accept a countywide redistricting plan without Charles Carroll as a school. That's when they will decide to close the school, Guthrie said. It is all open for public discussion and debate until that time, he said.

Parents had expressed concerns about bus rides becoming longer for students. Guthrie said bus routes won't be determined until the redistricting plan comes back with recommendations.

If the school is closed, the building, which is owned by the Board of Education, would then become county property, according to Caine.

Although the decision to close or keep the school open is ultimately up to the Board of Education, Commissioner Steve Wantz, R-District 1, who attended the meeting, said that if the building is closed, he would support turning the building into a community center, with a possible library, recreation programs or a community policing center.

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