Parents set to battle for new high school; Potential for another delay spurs some residents to action


For Westminster parents, it's a bad case of deja vu.

Last month, the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended to the county commissioners that the opening of the new Westminster high school be delayed by two years.

Westminster folks say the decision brings to mind the showdown in spring 1997, when the Westminster and South Carroll communities clashed over which should get a new high school first.

School officials had long planned to open the new school in Westminster in 2001, but the South Carroll group argued that crowding in their area was more acute, and they would not settle for additions on the two existing high schools -- South Carroll and Liberty. As a result, the board delayed opening a second high school in Westminster for at least a year.

Now, the potential for another delay has spurred the Westminster community into action.

"We're just incredulous that this is even happening again," said Robin Kable of Westminster, who argued in 1997 against switching the location of the county's next high school. "You look in the schools and see the need is obvious."

Determined that their high school won't be put on hold a second time, angry Westminster parents are preparing for another fight.

Kable estimated that 30 to 50 parents have volunteered to help the effort. They've scheduled an organizational meeting on Thursday at the activity center in The Greens development in Westminster. The goal is to appoint committee leaders to gather school enrollment information and recruit supporters. The group plans to meet with the county commissioners at the end of the month.

"The last time, we felt like we were caught off-guard at the 11th hour," Kable said. "We're not going to leave this one to chance."

With approximately 2,500 students, Westminster High School is one of the largest high schools in the Baltimore area. By 2003, administrators say, the school's enrollment may be close to 3,000.

"If we delay it another year, we've run out of room to put portables, and the core areas [hallways, gymnasiums and cafeterias] are impossibly overcrowded," said Kathleen Sanner, Carroll's director of school support services.

The planning commission's recommendation to delay a new Westminster high school is included in the panel's comments on the county's proposed capital improvement plan. The spending plan, which covers fiscal years 2000 to 2005, has been forwarded to the county commissioners, who may accept or reject the planning commission's recommendations.

Gauging new commission

Although the previous Board of County Commissioners supported the school board's construction schedule, it's unclear what position the new board will take.

Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Julia Walsh Gouge said they would not make their decisions until the latest enrollment projections are available.

"If the indications are those students are going to be out there, then we need to provide the school for them," Dell said.

Commissioner Robin Frazier, who opposed building the new Westminster high school when she was a member of the planning commission, could not be reached for comment.

Planning commission members who supported delaying the new Westminster high school said their decision was based in part on the fact that school officials did not furnish them with enrollment projections for the next 10 years.

"Before we go forth and make a $30 million decision, we want to see solid facts, and the school system hasn't given them to us," said Grant S. Dannelly, who joined Maurice E. Wheatley and David L. Brauning in voting to delay the high school.

"The figures we are working with are indicative of a drop-off in attendance," Dannelly said.

In its capital budget recommendations sent to the county commissioners, the planning commission notes that it may revisit school construction once new enrollment projections are completed.

Dannelly said the county needs one new high school, and that the school board's decision to build two new schools -- one in South Carroll and one in Westminster -- was motivated by politics.

Planning and design work has begun for the $29.4 million South Carroll high school, scheduled to open in 2001 on property adjacent to Linton Springs Elementary School.

"They made a political judgment to build schools in both areas at $30 million a pop," Dannelly said.

Planning commission member Melvin E. Baile Jr. and Chairwoman Deborah L. Ridgely voted to keep a new Westminster high school on schedule.

Late enrollment projections

Sanner said she informed the planning commission that enrollment projections would be late because of staff changes that took effect after William H. Hyde became superintendent in July. She said the projections will be ready tomorrow.

Although enrollment this year is 200 fewer than projected, Sanner said the change would not affect the need for planned school construction projects.

"It was 200 kids spread across 34 schools, spread across 27,000 students," she said. "I've been in Carroll County for 10 years doing enrollment projections, and in Baltimore County before that. But they [the planning commission] chose to ignore what I told them."

School board President C. Scott Stone criticized the planning commission's recommendation to modify a school construction schedule that had been agreed to by school board members and the previous Board of County Commissioners. He said school administrators and county budget officials worked closely to develop a feasible capital spending program to meet the needs of a growing student population.

The commissioners agreed to spend $106 million to build six schools by 2002. Because the schools were so badly needed, Stone said, the commissioners agreed to use county money to pay for the new Westminster high school -- as well as Cranberry Station Elementary School and a new middle school in Hampstead -- instead of waiting for state approval to build the schools.

"They were fiscal conservatives," Stone said of the previous board. "For them to take a position of $106 million over six years speaks to the legitimacy and need of those schools."

Pub Date: 1/03/99

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