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Governor's proposal to delay school closures to be discussed at joint meeting

A letter from the governor's office proposing to provide additional aid to Carroll County Public Schools in the state fiscal year 2017 budget, intended to delay school closings, has given the county Board of Education something to consider before it votes on the superintendent's recommendation to close three schools next year.

The board has called an emergency meeting with the county's state delegation, the Board of County Commissioners and requested the presence of a representative from the governor's office to discuss the likelihood of the school system receiving the money. That meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8, at Carroll Community College, the day before the school board is set to vote on the superintendent's plan to close three schools and change boundary lines in the following school year.

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In a letter read aloud by Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, Thursday evening at Francis Scott Key High School to a crowd of concerned parents and community members at the school board's final public hearing on the superintendent's proposal, Gov. Larry Hogan wrote that he would like the schools system to use $4 million in stopgap funding to defer school closings for the next year so that, "time is available for a more comprehensive plan tailored to insure that students' educational needs are protected during a transition year."

For now, the proposed funds are just that — a proposal, said Hogan spokesman Matt Clark.

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The 2017 budget is due to be submitted by the governor to the General Assembly by Jan. 20, 2016. At that point, it will be up to the state legislature to approve or reject items. While the legislature cannot add to the budget or move money around within it, it can restrict or reduce appropriations.

Nonetheless, the governor wanted to make his plans for Carroll, Garrett and Kent counties known ahead of the CCPS school board's meeting planned for Dec. 9, in which the board is expected to vote on a plan to address declining enrollment, Clark said. So an exception was made to what he described as Hogan's policy to not promise budget funds ahead of the budget process, he said.

The three rural counties have struggled to maintain adequate funding while facing declining student enrollments, Hogan notes in the letter addressed to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland.

While the governor wants to help schools in Carroll, Garrett and Kent counties, the funding is not guaranteed.

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"Obviously the legislature will have the opportunity to make whatever changes it wants to make to the budget," Clark said.

That is why CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said he and the Board of Education would like to discuss the likelihood of the school system receiving the funding.

"We will not know if this money is real money or just a proposal until after the conclusion of the legislative session, which is in April," Guthrie said. "While we appreciate the governor's interest in helping us with some of our financial woes, we're not sure that this money will be received."

The proposal drew criticism from Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, who issued a statement Friday in which he accused the Republican governor of turning his back on the state's four most populous jurisdictions by declining to release the already budgeted Geographic Cost of Education Index funding last budget cycle, and instead finding it "appropriate to give $5.6 million to Carroll, Garrett and Kent counties that have declining school populations."

"The Carroll County school district is making the tough decision to close schools in light of declining enrollment. This process is never easy," Kamenetz wrote. "To give money to Carroll so it can postpone this inevitable task for a year seems like a waste of state money, and doesn't encourage school systems to take actions that are fiscally responsible. It appears that the governor is guided more by political advantage, not fiscal prudence."

Although he did not release full GCEI funding, which goes to jurisdictions where the cost of providing education is more expensive, last year, Hogan said he intends to release the full amount in fiscal year 2017.

Too much uncertainty

Guthrie said the legislative process is "filled with surprises," so it's not clear if the school system will received the $4 million promised by the governor.

For example, Guthrie said the school system lost funding they had budgeted for in 2012 when former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, chose not to release funds they were expecting through a 25 percent hold harmless provision to the school system for fiscal year 2013.

"I don't know that's going to happen, but I certainly don't want to make any decisions based on receiving this revenue," Guthrie said. "I actually want to make sure we have the revenue in our accounts."

The proposal was made with an intent to delay school closings until the CCPS comes up with another solution. Some members of the county's state delegation have expressed uncertainty as to whether the school system has found the best solution to closing schools.

School board President Jim Doolan, who serves as spokesman for the board, said he is looking forward to sitting down with county and state officials Tuesday to clarify the plausibility of the school system receiving the funding.

"Is there a guarantee of the money and if so is it ongoing? Because that makes a total different position than just asking for something that may or may not get approved," Doolan said.

In the meantime, Guthrie said there are too many unknowns to speculate about how this will affect potential school closures next year.

"[School closures are] certainly not off the table until I understand more about this means to local funding," he said.

Because the county commissioners had indicated in a Nov. 5 public statement to the Board of Education that additional revenue to the school system was contingent upon the Board of Education closing schools, Guthrie said he wants to find out how the governor's proposal will affect county revenue.

"Initially, we were trying to lower our operating costs by school closures. If we did that the commissioners would increase local funding," he said. "We're also working with the state to increase funding. I didn't expect to get increased state revenue that might or not be tied to delaying school closures.

"Until I know all of those things, I can't make a decision on school closures."

Delaying the inevitable?

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, defends the plan Guthrie proposed Nov. 11, recommending three schools — Charles Carroll Elementary, New Windsor Middle and North Carroll High — for closure next year with an opportunity to revisit additional closures the following year.

"Who says it's not right right now? The [Boundary Adjustment Committee] has been looking at this for 11 months now; I'd like to believe that when there were alternative ideas they'd looked at them as well," Frazier said.

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But Frazier said he is unsure delaying the decision by a year will remedy the situation.

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"There are people that feel this hasn't been right," he said. "I feel it could have been better process, and the community could have been included more in the process. But that doesn't mean they came to the wrong conclusion."

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said the promise of more money does not change the county's school problem.

"The $4 million [would be] extremely helpful," he said. "But make no mistake, we have to move forward with the downsizing."

While he's still looking into the details of Hogan's letter, which Rothschild said he didn't receive a copy of until 3:30 p.m. Friday, the county should work to use any additional assistance it gets to help facilitate the process, not upend it, he said.

"The question is very simple: Do we have more schools than we need?" he said.

Board of Commissioners President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he learned of the governor's intention on social media after Shoemaker's announcement. While he's glad to hear about the plan to send more money to Carroll schools, the problem the schools face is far from fixed, he said.

"[The additional funds are] certainly something that we've been lobbying for, and I'm glad to see that at least that part of it has come to fruition," he said.

But, he added, "I'm concerned that it's one-time money."

The money, Wantz said, could buy the county more time in deciding how to deal with its current enrollment and funding problems, but there are still a lot of factors in play, he said.

"It leads to the perception of kicking the proverbial can down the road," he said.

And that's if the funds come through.

Still more than a month ahead of the start of the state's budget process, the funds are, at this stage, largely hypothetical, Wantz said, and it is not known whether, by the end of the budgeting process, in April, the money will come with special requirements or instructions.

Also, the possible effects of dragging the process out for many more months should be considered, Wantz said.

"My concern is, if we're going to delay this, what does that do to the back end of it?" he asked. "We've got to make sure that we are still focused on a long-term solution."

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Mayors' statement on school closures

The following statement was issued Friday by the eight mayors in Carroll County on school closures:

"As the Mayors of Carroll County's eight Municipalities we have concerns about the long term implications of the Superintendent's school closing plan. Throughout the process a number of plans have been presented which we believe deserve serious consideration. The County residents as taxpayers, teachers and most importantly students deserve a well thought out plan that considers both operating and capital costs over the long term. Each Municipality will be impacted by this decision and we believe the Superintendent and Board of Education should take additional time to review all the alternatives presented. In a recent meeting with the County Commissioners, we discussed County Branding and attracting more families to Carroll County. This plan will be a significant factor in how our County is viewed and should be considered by a cross section of people in an effort to provide the best and most efficient school system possible."

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