Westernport man leads nine-year quest to get Bruce High School reopened


WESTERNPORT -- For nearly a decade, Tom Marsh, businessman and father of three children, has battled to reopen his hometown high school in this old coal mining community along the Potomac River.

At first, Mr. Marsh wanted nothing more than to see his two sons and his daughter graduate from his alma mater, Bruce High School, which was closed in 1986 and converted into a middle school as part of a school consolidation plan. His children since have graduated -- from another high school seven miles down the road in Lonaconing.

Now Mr. Marsh perseveres in his quest to reopen Bruce High School because he -- along with others -- contends that the school's closing was "dirty politics." No other schools ever were closed or merged, and the Allegany County school board dropped plans for countywide consolidation.

His latest maneuver is an appeal before the state Board of Education. He has asked that board to overturn the local school board's decision not to have the state study a citizen-backed proposal that, among other things, would reopen Bruce High School.

"What [the school board] did was so unjust and intolerable," Mr. Marsh said. "I just can't accept the fact that they only closed a school in our community and not in any others."

Mr. Marsh, who owns the Chat-N-Chew Restaurant and other businesses in nearby McCoole, said the school's closing has had a detrimental effect on the social and economic fabric of Westernport, an isolated community about 30 miles southwest of Cumberland.

"They have literally taken away the heart of the town," he said.

Mr. Marsh figures he has spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pursuing his cause. He has attended almost every school board meeting since plans to close the school were made public in 1986.

One of the efforts of Mr. Marsh and his supporters has been to back new school board and county commission candidates. nTC Consolidation has been a political issue since the school's closing.

He and others have filed appeals before the state and local school boards.

Last year the group tried to secede from Allegany County and become part of Garrett County. Local legislators would not back the group and the movement died.

About a hundred parents and students protested in front of the school, stopping school buses.

"We have fought all kinds of battles, but we have continued to lose the war," said Christa Cheshire, chair of the Commission for Fair and Equitable Education in Lower George's Creek, a group formed by town officials of Luke and Westernport after the school's closing.

Things looked encouraging this year when state educators suggested the local school board allow them to study Mr. Marsh's proposal, which called for Bruce High School to reopen for grades six to 12. Two elementary schools would close and Westmar High School in Lonaconing would house kindergarten to grade 12 under the plan.

After the local board rejected the recommendation, Mr. Marsh filed his appeal, contending its members acted arbitrarily. He maintains the plan would save the rural school district hundreds of thousands of dollars and resolve the high school issue once and for all.

"The board looked at all the facts and decided we shouldn't do that," said Superintendent Robert Terrill. "It wasn't the philosophy of the board to go in that direction. Some members undertook their own economic analysis and determined it wouldn't be cost effective."

The Allegany school board has denied Mr. Marsh's allegations and asked him to substantiate facts that the board acted arbitrarily, said Gary Hanna, the school board's attorney.

Dr. Terrill said educators reviewed the consolidation issue last year after he became superintendent. He said it wasn't feasible to consolidate schools in more rural areas, for example, because of the lack of good roads between some communities.

"There are answers for apparent inconsistencies," he said.

He also noted that a survey conducted last spring among residents of Lower George's Creek Valley showed more than 60 percent wanted the schools to remain as they are. He acknowledged, though, that nearly 50 percent of Westernport residents wanted their school back.

"If we changed the schools back there would be as much conflict," said. "I have a great deal of respect he for Mr. Marsh. He's a tenacious individual, but you can't put [the school] back."

Mr. Marsh often speaks alone at school board meetings, but he has widespread support in the community and among alumni of the high school, said Bob Wiltison, who lives on a mountainside overlooking the town and also is an alumnus of the high school. "What he's doing is wonderful," Mr. Wiltison said. "We need somebody to do this. People sometimes ridicule him, and he doesn't get a lot of credit. We need more people doing what he's doing."

School board member Enordo "Moose" Arnone, who supported studying Mr. Marsh's plan, empathizes with Westernport residents.

"Personally, I'm an advocate of community schools," said Mr. Arnone, a former principal at Bruce High School who lives in Frostburg. "If the county is not going to close any more schools, then reopen [the high school]. There's been opportunities to do it, but for whatever reasons, political or whatever, they have not prevailed."

Though she still is committed to reopening the school, Ms. Cheshire said she fears that support is waning as years pass.

"The support of young parents is not as forthright as it was in the beginning," she said. "There are students now who have never had a tight bond with Bruce High School. And they don't want to be separated from their friends at Westmar High School."

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