Pushed to their limit

The Baltimore Sun

Parents from the northeast area of the county say they are not giving up the fight to get a new high school built, despite a recommendation to exclude the project from the county's six-year plan for capital improvements.

Parents from the region attended the Carroll County school board's regular meeting last week, reiterating the importance of having a new school to relieve overcrowding at Hampstead's North Carroll High School, where they describe students struggling through packed hallways and venturing out to portable buildings for class.

"Our ship has a hole, and you're holding on to the lifeboats to see if we can sink or swim," said Donna Oursler, PTA president at Manchester Elementary, during the public comment period at the board meeting. "I think that's unfair."

Other parents echoed her comments.

"You as a board and as a commissioner need to make a decision that reflects on us," said Michelle Jochum, who has four daughters, one a freshman at North Carroll. "How am I going to send three other daughters to a school that is completely unsafe? ... We need a new high school."

Several residents voiced similar concerns during a session with school officials in Hampstead earlier last week. Another meeting at North Carroll is scheduled for March 26.

Rumors of scrapping the proposed Manchester-area school have circulated since January, when the school board decided to postpone a call for potential names for the new building.

In the meeting with area residents last week, school officials presented this year's enrollment projections for the region that includes North Carroll, Westminster and Winters Mill high schools, which show student numbers mostly dropping between the 2007-2008 and 2016-2017 school years.

While parents have questioned how school officials came up with their figures, their ire was further incited last week when the county's director of management and budget, Ted Zaleski, excluded the high school from his list of recommended capital projects for the next six years.

Given to the commissioners during a meeting last Tuesday, Zaleski's list included a new elementary and middle school in South Carroll.

When he considered the relative urgency of the three schools, Zaleski said, "I just can't get to the high school being the most urgent of these three schools." Nor did he believe it would be possible "to pull off all three of these schools," he added.

Residents launched a fight for a new school in the northeast area more than two years ago. At the time, enrollment projections suggested that the overcrowded conditions at North Carroll would only mount in the coming years.

Now, however, student capacity at North Carroll is predicted to decrease from 128.5 percent in 2007-2008 to 103.6 percent in 2016-2017, according to the school system's enrollment projections.

A similar trend is anticipated for Westminster High, where next school year's 93.8 percent capacity could go down to 82.2 percent in 2016-2017.

In contrast, at Mount Airy and Sykesville Middle schools, where enrollment is currently close to or more than 120 percent capacity, enrollment during the same 10-year period could rise to 142.2 percent at Mount Airy and 135.4 percent at Sykesville.

Because those numbers are not projected to improve, the new middle school "is intended to relieve that overcrowding and put us back into compliance with adequate facilities," Zaleski said, referring to local standards for middle school student population.

A similar but not as dire situation in the county's southeast elementary schools also drove the budget director to place a new facility for South Carroll on his list. That region includes Piney Ridge, where enrollment is projected to climb to 134.7 percent capacity in the next decade.

The elementary school is estimated to cost $30.8 million, while the middle school could cost $54.6 million, Zaleski said.

The school system has set fiscal 2009 for planning for both schools, with an opening in fiscal 2012, said Stephen Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration, during Wednesday's board meeting.

Still, Zaleski said in an interview, his list was merely a suggestion, not set in stone.

"Until the budget's actually adopted, there's no way to say a project is or is not happening," Zaleski said.

Parents from the northeast area are determined to ensure it will happen. At least 100 people attended the Hampstead meeting last week. Smaller groups also have spoken at board meetings in February and last week.

"You're going to be seeing a lot of us," Oursler said to the board before taking her seat on Wednesday. "We're not giving up on this."


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