While we don’t blame the Board of County Commissioners for their frustrated take on the final report from the Redistricting and School Closure Committee — which as sitting commissioner and current school board candidate Doug Howard said “was anything but” — we do think the commissioners are oversimplifying the issue of redistricting.
Everyone involved has recognized that East Middle School is the key cog in any solution, whether that includes closures, redistricting, modernization or new construction. Built in 1936 as the original Westminster High School, East Middle School is, according to the RSCC’s report, “the unavoidable driver of all planning efforts in Carroll” and “the highest priority in the jurisdiction for capital renewal.” That’s nothing new; in fact it is a reality members of both boards have known since their respective members took office.
The long-anticipated release of the Redistricting and School Closure Committee’s report, which included five possible planning options, left Carroll’s commissioners — the primary funding agent for Carroll County Public Schools — angry and yelling the following day.
The commissioners insisted Thursday that they would not “spend a dime” on East Middle, which ostensibly also means they are not willing to fund a new kindergarten through eighth-grade facility that would allow East and the aging William Winchester Elementary School to be taken offline, and which was the top recommendation of the RSCC, as well as committees put together before it.
Capital cost avoidance has always been the top priority of the county commissioners, who are the primary funding body of the Carroll County Public Schools. And while we don’t necessarily disagree with the committees who have determined that a K-8 facility may be the best educational option, as some of the commissioners pointed out, that isn’t based in a financial reality.
Now, we could certainly dissect past decisions of this and previous boards of commissioners — and boards of education — to explain why that financial reality is so, but to do so would be futile. Those decisions cannot be undone.
It isn’t as simple as “Redistrict, redistrict, redistrict!” as Commissioner Richard Rothschild put it either, but the school systems unwillingness to even consider redistricting options is frustrating.
The RSCC laid out multiple options that included closing East and redistricting students throughout the county, creating a large middle school on the campus of West Middle and William Winchester Elementary while redistricting elementary school students, and redistricting the high schools and re-purposing Winters Mill as a middle school.
Like anything, there are pros and cons to every option. Unfortunately, because of a lack of time and expertise, the RSCC did not fully evaluate the actual impacts of this potential solutions. Make no mistake, undertaking any of these choices would result in drastic changes in transportation, feeder patterns and — yes — would be disruptive, at least short term, to school communities. There is also potentially significant savings in these options.
However, those specific effects — both positive and negative — are unknown because they have yet to be fully studied. Until the Board of Education either directs school staff or hires an independent outside firm to thoroughly vet those options, do not expect the county commissioners to change their tune.
The reality is, there is existing space within Carroll County Public Schools. It might not be a perfect fit and it may involve changing the way things are done in certain educational settings, but we have smart and resourceful people working in our school system; certainly, they can figure it out.
With that said, we cannot think of a single option that takes East Middle School offline that does not involve some capital or ongoing operating expenditures elsewhere.
Despite the committee’s name, the Redistricting and School Closure Committee concluded that while there is a “pressing need to find efficiencies,” neither comprehensive redistricting nor school closures are “warranted” at this time.
The commissioners are making an assumption that these expenditures would be less than what it would cost to modernize East Middle or build a new K-8 school. There is no way to know if that assumption is correct without doing due diligence on these other options, and it’s possible that the opposite is true and building a new school is the most cost-effective solution.
At this point, the two boards must agree that redistricting options must first be explored thoroughly, but the commissioners must be willing to back off their stubborn stance on capital expenditures if redistricting turns out to not be the most financially prudent path forward.
Unfortunately, these are things that should’ve happened years ago. Meanwhile, while elected officials on both sides dig their heels in, the people suffering are students and parents who continue to wonder how all of this will ultimately affect them.