Allegany's money woes put pressure on small schools; Cumberland parents eye rural spending

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FLINTSTONE -- In a state with a roaring economy and a cash-flush treasury, some Allegany County school leaders are warning that money is so tight they won't be able to open classes next fall unless they force a battle by closing some tiny kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools in this county's isolated communities.

The Allegany school system is so strapped that it has put a moratorium on starting programs or accepting state funds if it is required to match that money.

For the first half of the current school year, about two dozen newly hired Allegany teachers weren't paid salaries; they received the substitute teacher rate of $57 a day without benefits.

"It's like the economy has passed us by," says Jeanette Rine hart, a graduate and teacher at Flintstone's 385-student K-12 school. "There doesn't seem to be money for anything."

The system's financial situation is so bad that the county teachers union has called for the state school board to step in and take over the Allegany schools.

"The bottom is going to drop out if nothing is done, and it's going to drop out soon," says John Riley, the union's president.

No one suggests that the school budget woes are tied to wasteful spending, though the county's Chamber of Commerce is making noises about battling the system in court for the release of certain financial data.

And test scores show the system is doing many things right.

Since Maryland began its state testing program in 1993, Allegany's schools have posted the second-largest gains in the state, steadily moving from near the bottom to the middle of the pack despite having the state's second-highest proportion of poverty.

The heart of the problem is that Allegany -- like several other rural areas of Maryland -- hasn't pulled itself out of the state's economic woes of the early 1990s.

For Allegany, the closings of such major plants as Kelly Tire and Pittsburgh Plate & Glass -- and the shrinking of the area's coal mining and lumber industries -- continue to hit hard.

Though the county's tax rate is the third-highest in Maryland, its wealth per pupil is fourth-lowest, leaving it virtually unable to find more local money for schools.

"Fundamentally, we aren't spending enough money," says House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents Allegany County. "We can't. The tax base isn't there."

Taylor has proposed a package of state aid next year for education in seven economically distressed jurisdictions: Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett, Somerset and Worcester counties and Baltimore.

Allegany would receive almost $2.4 million under the proposal, enough to close more than half of the projected $4.5 million deficit in its proposed $60 million school budget for next year.

"We're under-funded at the state level, and in a state with a billion-dollar surplus, we ought to be able to get some help," says school board member Donna "Dee" Truesdell.

But a persistent group of parents -- most of whom live in Allegany's most populous area, Cumberland -- says the financial problems signal that it's time to tackle a more fundamental problem: The county has too many school buildings.

That is setting up a battle between the county's city dwellers and those who live in rural areas.

In 1972, Allegany's public school enrollment was 18,000. Today, it's about 10,600, and enrollment is projected to drop a further 1,500, more than 13 percent, over the next decade, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.

Yet the county still has 26 schools, almost the same number of schools as it had in the 1970s, including three small K-12 buildings. The two K-12 schools that serve most of eastern Allegany, Flintstone and Oldtown, are barely half-filled.

"There seems to be a desire to ignore these realities," says Erin DeLong, mother of two children in the Cumberland area schools and a leader of a group pushing to consolidate schools. "The city schools are being stripped of resources to keep these small schools open."

Those pushing to close schools point most vigorously at Oldtown, where the entire high school-age enrollment is 44 and the junior class recently fell from five students to four.

Many other students who would go to Oldtown instead choose to go to its vocational-technical center or use their own transportation to attend one of the county's larger high schools.

"Oldtown doesn't even offer U.S. history to its 11th-graders this year. The kids can't take it until their senior year," says school board member Tim Woodring, the most vocal proponent of closing schools. "Is it fair for us to have a high school where kids aren't able to take their requirements?"

Teachers, principals and parents at the K-12 schools vehemently disagree that their children's education is limited.

"My mother went here, and I went here, and my kids went here, and I want my grandchildren to go here," says Georgene McLaughlin, a 1972 Oldtown graduate. "This is a community school, a family school, and we don't want it to change."

They point to studies linking smaller schools to improved achievement and say that modern technology -- the Internet and distance-learning television -- allow advanced classes to be taken by students anywhere. They're also proud of classes that tend to be small, and they say they live too far out in the mountains to be bused into town.

"I personally know every student in this school," says Jenean Fazenbaker, Oldtown's guidance counselor and journalism-yearbook teacher. "That close contact can't be duplicated."

Complicating any move to close schools is a crafty piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly 15 years ago.

Known as the Taylor Busing Bill, the law prohibits Allegany students from being transported to their local schools more than an hour each way.

Those who want to close schools say the law was intended to prevent Flintstone or Oldtown from ever being closed because they're so far from any other school buildings in the county.

A majority of the board has twice voted to ask the local legislative delegation to lift the law. Legislators have refused to overturn the law, though this week they agreed to lift the busing restriction for high school students.

"They're hiding behind that busing bill," says Taylor, who says he pushed for the law to ensure young children wouldn't be spending more than two hours a day riding school buses and would support such a restriction statewide. "I'm not the enemy."

The hard feelings over closing schools in Allegany County go back a long time.

Fifteen years ago, a school board member resigned soon after the board closed Bruce High School in Westernport, saying she had receiving anonymous threats. There's still a big sign in the town calling for its high schoolers to be brought home.

"If parents want a community school, they have a constitutional right to have it," says Tom Marsh, a leader of the fight to reopen the Westernport high school.

Since then, the suggestion that closing schools be reconsidered has flared up from time to time, but it has always been quickly quashed -- until this winter.

This time, many educators and parents expect the struggle to find school funds will lead to a community battle before the end of April, as the majority of the school board appears ready to close some schools.

"Everything tells me this isn't something I want to do, but I know I need money," says Allegany Superintendent M. John O'Connell. "My gut tells me we're addressing old problems with old ideas. What price do you pay for community schools?"

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