Parents may soon find out whether nearly 200 rising fifth-graders from Hampstead and Manchester elementaries will be relocated in the fall to a cluster of portable classrooms at North Carroll Middle School.
While many parents may have thought the question was settled when board members recently rejected a modified proposal to move the children, that was not the case.
To ease crowded conditions, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker has proposed moving all of next fall's fifth-graders from Manchester and about half of the fifth-graders from Hampstead to portable classrooms at North Carroll Middle. School officials have projected that Hampstead, with 583 pupils, will be at 117 percent capacity this fall, and that Manchester will be at 120 percent capacity, with 767 pupils.
Ecker recently sent letters to parents to clarify the status of his proposal.
"Please be aware there is still the possibility that the board may act on the [original] recommendation," Ecker wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to parents. "This possibility exists because the original motion was never voted on and the original recommendation, or a revised recommendation, may be brought back to the Board of Education for a vote."
Ecker's letter - a copy of which was provided to The Sun by a parent - stated that he hopes the board will make a decision "no later than the [board's] March 8" meeting.
Last week, while visiting Hampstead Elementary with two school board members, Ecker said a possible revised recommendation could propose to move only Manchester's rising fifth-graders to the middle school in the fall and delay moving Hampstead's fifth-graders until the next school year.
At a school board meeting this month, board members - after first amending Ecker's proposal by adding the stipulation that the relocation be delayed a year - overwhelmingly voted down their modified version of the proposal to move the children this fall.
At that meeting, board President Thomas G. Hiltz told parents that to better visualize the ramifications of the relocation proposal, he needed to see the schools before he could vote on whether to move the children, wait a year or do nothing at all.
At North Carroll, fifth-graders would attend nearly all classes in the portables. They would go into the main building for media classes, physical education and lunch, according to the proposal. However, parents said the move would unnecessarily separate peers, leave little time to prepare children for the transition and thrust their children into the middle-school environment before they were ready.
Last week, Hiltz and fellow board member Cynthia L. Foley visited Hampstead Elementary with Ecker, Hampstead Principal Theresa Ball and school PTA President Deb Levy. Board Vice President Gary W. Bauer and members Patricia W. Gadberry and C. Scott Stone were not present.
At Hampstead, Hiltz and Foley peeked into classrooms and walked through a jammed cafeteria, the media center and the gym to picture the constraints the school will face when construction for all-day kindergarten classrooms begins.
"It has been helpful to get out and see what we're talking about," Hiltz said after a nearly one-hour visit. "I think I have a better appreciation for the design of the school and the challenges that this poor design - in my opinion, it's a poor design - has on how this school operates."
After touring the school's first- and second-grade suites, Hiltz said he worries that parents and school officials are underestimating the impact that construction will have on the children's ability to concentrate.
He said that regardless of what the board decides about Hampstead's fifth-graders, it will likely prove impractical to have children attending classes next to construction areas.
"We'll probably need to bring an extra portable here" to have the space to move the children to quieter areas of the school, he said.
Parents have asked board members to move additional portables to the elementaries instead of relocating the children. But James Doolan, the system's director of transportation - who oversaw a committee looking for options to ease crowding at the schools - said each school already has eight portable classrooms, with little room on the sites for more.
Ball pointed out where some parents have suggested placing an additional portable - on the school's front lawn - to avoid moving children to portables at the middle school. She said she would recommend putting a portable on the basketball court behind the school if board members agree to move a portable to each of the elementary schools.
In addition to relieving crowding, the proposed move to the middle school - estimated to cost about $280,000 for additional teachers and staff members - would provide flexibility to move pupils as construction begins, school officials said. School officials have said the relocation of fifth-graders would continue until Ebb Valley Elementary is built in a neighboring area of the county. The school is slated to open for the 2008-2009 school year.
Ball and Levy said they favor delaying the move of Hampstead's fifth-graders, but Levy emphasized that parents need to realize the trade-off involved.
"It makes some sense to me to keep them here because of the transition issues," Levy said. "But parents need to understand that if we keep fifth-graders here and then over the summer we have a lot more children enroll, they'll have to be willing to tolerate large class sizes because we won't have the classroom space to add a teacher."