Allegany board votes to close some schools to solve money woes; State aid declined; restructuring plan might face lawsuits


Despite its desperate need for extra money, the Allegany County school board turned down $1 million in state aid yesterday and instead voted for a sweeping plan of closings and redistricting -- including shutting the county's highest-performing elementary school.

The board's decision also will dramatically restructure its three tiny kindergarten-through-12th grade schools, stunning the isolated Allegany communities that cling to the schools for their identities and have bitterly fought the closings.

"I am in shock," said Nancy Rebert, who has a ninth-grade daughter at the K-12 Oldtown School, which has a high school enrollment of 44 students. "I can't believe they are shutting the entire school down."

The school board turned down the $1 million offer from the state because it required the board to delay for a year any decisions on closings, until after an outside expert completes an audit of the system.

Parents and other community members who support closing schools this fall say the $1 million would fail to cover the extra expense of keeping open the small rural schools, forcing deep budget cuts elsewhere.

"It was essential -- painful but essential," said Erin DeLong, mother of two children in Cumberland-area schools and a leader of a group pushing to consolidate schools. "If the board hadn't decided to close some schools, it would have had to eliminate 30 high school teachers from the county.

"It would have meant the elimination of Advanced Placement and merit classes in some of the high schools," DeLong said.

The school system's financial situation is so bad that this winter, Allegany put a moratorium on starting programs or accepting state funds if it is required to match the 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.

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.

As the board looked at next year's $60 million proposed budget, it saw a $4.5 million shortfall, raising the prospect of another round of deep cuts without extra state aid.

During this past legislative session, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents Allegany County, pushed through an aid package for some of the state's economically distressed areas -- resulting in at least $3.3 million more for Allegany's schools.

Yet the money would have left the school board short of funding and prompted some in the community to push for moving forward with school closings.

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

Yet the county has 26 schools, almost the same number of schools 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.

The school board, county government and state Education Department have agreed to pay for an audit of the school system, and Taylor secured $1 million in aid to delay school closings until after the audit.

"We would have waited a year, figured out the best options and then made a decision," said school board member Donna Truesdell, who voted against yesterday's decision. "It does not make sense what the board did today. We have put the county in turmoil over this."

The board's vote -- expected to save about $1.8 million -- closes the K-12 Oldtown School, changes the K-12 Flintstone School into an elementary school and makes the K-12 Mount Savage School into a K-8 school. It also closes 151-student Barton Elementary -- the highest-scoring elementary in the county -- and forces widespread redistricting of students across much of the county, including sending high school students from the three K-12 schools to other county schools.

Taylor said he does not want to interfere with the board's authority, but had hoped that it would delay closings until a thorough study was done.

"I thought it was preferable to go forward with a performance audit and a complete review of the system prior to making systemic changes," said Taylor, who acknowledged that the board's decision might make lobbying for state money for Allegany more difficult. "This is the first time in my 27 years that anybody I know of is returning money to the state government."

Parents at the schools designated for closure in the fall were considering lawsuits yesterday, and Oldtown parents were looking at reviving a lawsuit they filed during the winter but had put on hold because of the $1 million offer from the state.

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