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Tomlinson: Charter school might be best bet for North Carroll campus

Christopher Tomlinson
Christopher Tomlinson (Courtesy photo)

Last week, Commissioner Doug Howard presented an idea to the residents of Hampstead that would not only utilize the former North Carroll High School campus but bring a high school back to their town. The idea that Howard proposed was a charter school.

According to the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, there are nearly 23,000 students enrolled in Maryland’s 50 public charter schools. In addition, charter schools create their own curriculum and programs, but they are open and tuition-free to the public. Charter schools are managed by nonprofit organizations and receive funding from the local public school system.

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As the Carroll County Times recently reported, two organizations have tried and failed to start charter schools in Carroll in the last three years. The Montessori group was unable to register enough students, and the Silver Oak Academy pulled its application after realizing that the current Board of Education would likely not approve it.

Besides these two organizations, North Carroll parents previously proposed the idea of putting a charter school in the vacant NCHS building. Unfortunately, the proposal received no support from the landlords of the property, the Board of County Commissioners, and the elected officials tasked with approving charter applications, the BOE.

The question our community now asks itself is simple — what makes us think this will work now? Although many in the crowd at Howard’s meeting agreed with the idea of using NCHS to host a charter school, there was little optimism that it could be done. Parents stridently asked why should any member of this community waste any more time and energy on an idea that was already rejected. I completely agree. Other concerned community members and I poured our hearts and souls into the fight to save North Carroll in 2015-2016. We cannot bear the thought of facing disappointment yet again. However, I do feel that there are several different variables at play this time around that have changed the game.

Maryland was fortunate enough to be one of nine states to receive a grant in late 2017 from the federal government’s Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Grant to State Entities Program. Maryland was awarded $17.2 million over five years to expand and create new charter schools. Maryland’s Department of Education wasted no time putting this grant money to use. MDE has already started to award $900,000 subgrants to approved nonprofit organizations operating or opening charter schools in the state. This money is to be used for training staff, purchasing supplies, equipment and technology, recruiting students, and, most importantly, making repairs to facilities.

As great as this free money sounds, a nonprofit organization cannot even apply for the grant without the local BOE approving the charter application. The difference, however, between previous attempts to start a charter school and now is that many of the major players have changed or are about to change.

Our new superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools, Dr. Steven A. Lockard, has only been in his new position for less than 60 days, so it is hard to know where he stands on this issue. However, during his time as deputy superintendent for Frederick County Public Schools, two new charter schools were founded. This is extremely good news for advocates of a Carroll County charter school.

The county government owns the NCHS campus, which means they would need to lease the building to the charter school. This December, two new county commissioners will take their seats and be forced to decide the fate of the former school they inherited. By allowing a charter school to occupy the building, this new Board of County Commissioners will not only have found a purpose for the structure, but also may be encouraged to make the major repairs that will be needed soon.

Finally, the Board of Education will also receive a makeover come this December. Three BOE spots are up for grabs, and at least two of those seats will go to first-time members. I was able to briefly speak with the three BOE candidates who were at Howard’s meeting: Kenny Kiler, Tara Battaglia and Doug Howard. All three agreed that they would be in favor of a charter school at NCHS. The days of the BOE turning away charter applications may be extinct.

Howard said, “The idea of a charter school may not be new, it may not be easy, and it may not be perfect. However, working to get approval for a charter high school, working to attract new students so there is a funding source, and putting it in the hands of the community seems to be the best option and worthy of pursuit." Many in the community and I are frustrated with the entire situation, but this idea may be the best we have at this time. I do believe that the current environment in Carroll may be more welcoming to a charter school and it is worth a shot.

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