Allegany County's rural, poor communities launched a last-ditch effort yesterday to stop the Western Maryland school system's sweeping plan of closings and redistricting before next month's start of classes, making a two-hour appeal to the state school board.
In their appeal, lawyers for the parents predicted that the Allegany plan -- which includes shutting down the county's highest-performing elementary school and drastically restructuring its three tiny kindergarten-through-12th- grade schools -- would severely damage the spirits of the isolated communities and force children to take dangerous daily bus rides of more than an hour each way.
"I ask you, what good would it do to offer high school students more courses if they die in a bus crash?" asked Donald Goldbloom, a lawyer representing the Mount Savage community in northwestern Allegany.
In April, after months of debate over the school system's financial problems, the sharply divided Allegany board decided to close the 151-pupil Barton Elementary and shut down one of its three K-12 schools, Oldtown.
The K-12 Flintstone School would become an elementary school, and the K-12 Mount Savage School would become a K-8 school. This would mean that middle and high school students would be sent to other county schools.
By its decision, the Allegany board rejected an offer of $1 million in aid from the governor in return for delaying its action for a year.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents the area, had secured the money to provide time for a performance audit of the system. However, the board decided that closing the schools for this fall would provide more financial relief than the $1 million in aid.
Gary Hanna, the Allegany board's lawyer, argued yesterday that the school system -- which pays the lowest teacher salaries in Maryland -- is woefully short of money and that its K-12 schools are too small to offer an adequate education.
"We have given all of the students the chance to participate in a kindergarten-to-fifth-grade, middle school and high school situation," Hanna said. "We have come into the 20th century."
Yesterday's arguments included five separate appeals of the Allegany board's decision.
They occurred after five days of hearings in Cumberland before an administrative law judge, who in an 84-page ruling upheld the board's actions.
The state board is expected to issue its decision by Aug. 1.
At the end of the day, the state board gave member Walter Sondheim a present for his 92nd birthday by electing him president. Sondheim was first elected president in July 1998, when he was 90. He was re-elected in 1999 but stepped down last winter.