Last month, Commissioner Richard Weaver asked his fellow commissioners if they would consider opening North Carroll High School’s beautiful auditorium for public usage — an auditorium that is still in pristine shape. Weaver made the motion, but he was unable to get a single commissioner to second it. The motion died quicker than a wayward turkey who wandered into Butterball headquarters.
The Board of County Commissioners is the landlord of the former high school, a property it inherited after our local Board of Education decided to close its doors after the 2015-2016 school year. Today, the public is unable to access the majority of the nearly 280,000-square-foot facility and surrounding campus. Sheriff Jim DeWees runs a Police Training Academy on the bottom level and the North Carroll Recreation Council is allowed to use both gymnasiums and surrounding fields, minus the stadium. Unfortunately, most of the building and campus is off limits to the public.
At one point, Carroll County Public School’s central office and the Sheriff’s northern precinct were supposed to relocate to the former North Carroll High campus. Both decisions were later reversed. North Carroll’s stadium is scheduled to receive a turf field but this dream seems to be hanging on by a thread like a wishbone being pulled by two rambunctious toddlers. The county has raised less than $10,000 for the turf field so far, a little short of the $500,000 target. Other ideas have been tossed around over the last three years like a football at the family Turkey Bowl, but those ideas have been long abandoned.
The commissioners justified their decision to deny public usage of the auditorium by bringing up some dubious concerns. The first course of concerns was who would operate and maintain the auditorium if it were open to the public. This would be a valid concern if the commissioners had not already assigned two full-time equivalent employees to float between Charles Carroll Elementary School and North Carroll to provide maintenance. Considering that Charles Carroll disappeared like the last slice of pumpkin pie, these two full-time equivalent staff members should now be working solely at North Carroll. If these folks are still on the payroll, then why would additional staff be needed?
The main course concern served up by the commissioners is the need for heating and air condition in the building. While it does cost slightly more to serve real cranberry sauce as compared to the canned cranberry-like gelatin version, the reality is that the county is already spending $35,000 per month to maintain the building, with a total annual allotment of $500,000. Why are taxpayers maintaining the whole building when only the basement is being used? If hard-earned tax dollars are already being spent on the former school, the county might as well spend a little more if it means actually using it.
What do the commissioners want to do with the building? It appears that they wish to see it go the way of the other two schools they acquired after the 2015-2016 school closures. They have made it clear that they would like to lease the building. This is similar to the fate of New Windsor Middle, which has been leased to the Springdale Preparatory School for two years, with an option to buy. Unfortunately, I foresee North Carroll suffering the same fate as Charles Carroll, which was demolished on April 2.
An email from the County’s Department of Management and Budget Director, Ted Zaleski, sent to the commissioners on Oct. 24 was produced in response to a PIA request that revealed Zaleski arguing strenuously against allowing the public to use the auditorium, and also advocates for its demolition: “I really believe that we need to get rid of this building. If we can’t find someone to buy or it take it, then we need to demolish it.”
Furthermore, Zaleski touches on the self-prescribed three-year deadline the commissioners set for themselves one year ago — that the building should be torn down if a decision has not been made on its disposition. Zaleski says in the email, “If we are still looking at three years and you allow use of the auditorium, you will build a constituency that will make it more difficult for us to walk away at the end of the three years.”
After reading these statements, I am left wondering if the county wants to find a purpose for the building or if the decision has already been made to slaughter it and serve it for dinner. The longer the county does not use the building and refuses to put any money into it, the more it becomes like old leftovers in the fridge, that is, likely to spoil and unlikely ever to be eaten. Commissioners will soon be “forced” to permanently close and demolish North Carroll as well if they refuse to find a recipe for its use.
The journey of North Carroll over the last few years has had more twists and turns than the characters played Steve Martin and John Candy in their trip back to Chicago in the Thanksgiving classic, “Trains, Planes & Automobiles.” At the end of the film, our heroes make it back home just in time for Thanksgiving. My hope is that the commissioners allow the North Carroll community to also return back “home” before time runs out.