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Board ponders school needs

As Carroll County school officials consider plans to ease crowding in Hampstead's North Carroll High School, more than a dozen other schools are facing problems with soaring enrollments, school officials told the county commissioners yesterday.

After months of discussions on ways to reduce classroom size at North Carroll, schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker recommended to the school board last night construction of the county's eighth high school to alleviate the problem.

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The board is expected to vote on a North Carroll overcrowding solution in September after two community discussions - the first scheduled Tuesday and the another July 28.

A new school with a capacity of 1,200 students is among the several proposals suggested for dealing with growth at North Carroll. About 1,600 students attend the high school, which was built more than 25 years ago for 1,340 students.

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The crowding has meant converting offices and storage areas into classrooms, turning an unused stairwell into a storage closet and building an office in a lightly trafficked hallway.

James Doolan, a school administrator who was chairman of the committee to explore options for the North Carroll area, said that a new school would address the needs of students, solve overcrowding and still allow children to attend schools in their neighborhood.

"Growth is going to continue; this new school plans for and addresses future growth in all the contiguous school areas," Doolan said.

Ecker recommended building the school with plans to open in 2008 with 700 students in three grades. The county has a potential site available at Route 30 and Cape Horn Road.

School board members met yesterday with Carroll's three county commissioners to discuss issues including construction needs and plans to build a new school to replace Freedom Elementary in Sykesville.

A one-page list from Ecker noted more than a dozen overcrowded schools - including Hampstead, Carrolltowne and Eldersburg elementaries and Mount Airy and Sykesville middle schools - and various capital projects to renovate and modernize buildings, replace roofs and upgrade heating and ventilating systems.

"Every area in our county needs a large budget item," said school board member Laura Rhodes. "I am really concerned that we are pushing our older buildings to the point where they're going to be health and safety problems. At some point, they will not be fixable."

On top of that, the county's schools face another pressure, Ecker said. The schools will lose 40 elementary classrooms overall because the state recently reduced elementary school classroom capacity from 25 pupils to 23, he said.

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School Board President C. Scott Stone suggested that county staff and school administrators work together to develop an affordability study on capital needs for the schools, as the two groups did in the early 1990s. As a result, some projects were completed, Stone said.

"We were successful in getting that done," he said.

Discussion about a possible site in South Carroll for a new Freedom Elementary, however, turned testy when the county commissioners expressed frustration over their failed effort to create another revenue source for school and public safety funding through the county's General Assembly delegation.

The exchange began with school facilities officials telling the commissioners that a parcel of county-owned land in South Carroll is not sufficient for a new Freedom Elementary School because 20 percent of the property is wetlands.

A committee that evaluated the elementary school building recommended replacing it with a new school, but the current site is not adequate because of space constraints.

The property with the wetlands was originally to be used for a new senior center, said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

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School board member Susan Holt said either way, the county needs to find land to build a new elementary school in the Freedom area.

Minnich and Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge reminded the board members that they had pushed for a tax on real estate transactions to pay for increased demand on services, including schools, but the proposal failed because the state delegation rejected it.

After the meeting, Holt said she wasn't blaming the commissioners, but referring to ever-changing scenarios the schools are faced with, including a state mandate for all-day kindergarten and the revision in elementary school capacity.

"It's always a changing ballgame - that's the politics we're playing with," Holt said, noting that the school board and the county have a good relationship. "We have partnered with them well. Our relationship isn't getting more difficult. Our jobs are getting more difficult."


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