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Editorial: New East Middle should be built on the same campus as the current East Middle

More than three years after it closed to students, the North Carroll High School building in Hampstead sits essentially empty most days, with most of its use coming when the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office Training Academy is in session. Turning the now Carroll County-owned building into a Next-Generation 911 training center, into a charter school or demolishing it are among the many ideas that have been discussed pretty much since the doors closed, including during the most recent Hampstead municipal election campaign. But the town and county have yet to come up with anything definitive.

In a few years, the county could be faced with a similar dilemma, another vacant school building on its hands costing money for upkeep with no obvious plan after the Board of Education took a significant step toward a solution to the issues surrounding aging Westminster East Middle School during a work session on Wednesday. The BOE chose to consider two options, both of which will mean building a brand-new middle school to take East Middle’s place. One of the options turns the current building over to the county and, short of some rich entrepreneur or company approaching the county, ready to sign up to buy the building immediately after the final bell, this option should be avoided.

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Presented with five options from a feasibility study commissioned at the request of the school system, the BOE pared the list to two. That decision allows Carroll County Public Schools staff to inform the state about the project and Superintendent Steve Lockard is expected call for the formation of a Construction Planning Committee at the Aug. 14 Board of Education meeting. Ideally, construction would start in the summer of 2021 and the new middle school would have a planned opening at the start of the 2023-24 school year.

The two options chosen by the Board to further consider were not a surprise. Eliminated was the possibility of creating a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school either on site or on the campus of Friendship Valley Elementary, outside of Westminster’s city limits. Those two options, while they could’ve addressed what to do about aging William Winchester Elementary before the situation at that Westminster school, too, becomes dire, were deemed too expensive with each expected to cost nearly $100 million. Also eliminated was the possibility of renovating the current East Middle. That option was favored by some because the building that has been East Middle for nearly 50 years was before that Westminster High School for 35 years and taking a wrecking ball to its historic Art Deco facade would be a shame. But the building is falling apart, is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and fixing it up would cost more than $60 million.

So the BOE is still considering the two least expensive and most obvious options: Build a new middle school on the current East Middle campus or build a new middle school on the ground outside Friendship Valley that is currently used by recreation councils for sports fields. Putting the new middle school on the same site comes with a tentative price tag of $59,958,175, while the project at Friendship Valley would cost an estimated $55,992,239. Nearly half of the roughly $4 million difference comes from the demolition of the current East Middle building in the first option. In the second option, CCPS would turn the building over to the county. Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, rightly noted that while that second option may seem like cost saving, it would likely just transfer those costs from the school system over to county government, which funds the school system.

At this point, East Middle is more like Charles Carroll Elementary than New Windsor Middle School — the two schools that were shuttered at the same time as North Carroll. While New Windsor was still in decent shape and proved to be a good fit for Springdale Preparatory School, Charles Carroll was demolished. It is far more likely that the East Middle building would become another albatross for county government than a moneymaker or a solution for some agency.

Add to that the fact that Westminster city officials have publicly expressed their desire to keep East Middle at its present site and the on-the-money comments Wednesday from Board member Patricia Ann Dorsey, who said the current site option would remove the need for redistricting and would not be disruptive to the massive rec sports community that so needs access to the fields at Friendship Valley, and the answer is clear. The best option is to build the new East Middle School right beside the old one.

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