“We can’t afford this building.” That’s the position of Carroll County Director of Management and Budget Ted Zaleski, when it comes to the North Carroll High School building, and it’s hard to disagree with him.
Zaleski wrote an Oct. 24 letter to the Board of County Commissioners regarding a request from Commissioner Richard Weaver to use the auditorium in the former high school for events in Hampstead. In it, he argued against using the auditorium given the county’s “fiscal position, pressures on services, facilities and infrastructure, and looming fiscal concerns,” stating, “I feel comfortable taking the position: We can’t afford this building.”
“If someone came to you with a proposal to give you a big, old building that needed tens of millions of dollars spent on it so that you could use the gym, the auditorium and a handful of rooms, I don’t think you would be interested,” Zaleski went on to write.
The fiscal reality is that he’s 100 percent correct. The county is spending approximately $35,000 per month to maintain the building with a total annual allotment of $500,000 for the next three fiscal years. That doesn’t include the millions Zaleski references that would need to be done to make the building accessible and up to code.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild — in simpler, albeit hyperbolic, terms — compared making the auditorium available a few times a year to keeping “the Empire State building open so we could run 7-Eleven out of the first floor.”
If not for the sentimental value of the school to the North Carroll community, there is no question in our minds what the public — and the commissioners — would say if someone presented the hypothetical deal Zaleski described. For a group of fiscal conservatives, trying to preserve the building is fiscally irresponsible.
It can be debated endlessly whether the Carroll County Board of Education was right or wrong in its decision to close North Carroll High and two other schools, but that decision cannot be undone at this point.
For those who argue the building will be needed for a school again in the future, we don’t disagree entirely, but that future is likely a decade or more away. Recall that it was unreliable,10-year projections that led to the county voting in favor of spending more than $60 million on Manchester Valley High School years ago that set the stage for this conundrum.
Even with Carroll schools showing modest growth in enrollment lately, as well as new development planned for Hampstead, there is no indication there will be a need for a new high school anytime soon.
Selling the facility for business use has been discussed, but that would require a rezoning by the town of Hampstead, which doesn’t own the property but does hold its zoning rights and has been somewhat resistant to the building being sold.
A better idea that may be more mutually satisfying to all involved would be to raze the existing building and construct a community center in its place, similar to what is being done at the site of the former Charles Carroll Elementary School.
Doing so would give the Hampstead community a more modern facility to use, eliminate the costs of maintaining and updating an entire school building, preserve fields for rec spots and also keep the land in the county’s possession in case it is needed for a new school in the future.
County commissioners don’t have to make a decision now. In fact, it makes more sense for the next Board of County Commissioners to address the matter, but it certainly warrants some serious consideration. It seems like the best path forward to assuage the concerns, both fiscal and emotional, of all involved.