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Lunch in class, or why we need a building fund

February 26, 1997

It's 11 a.m. on a sunny February day when the first graders at Fountain Rock Elementary School begin lining up for lunch. This day's menu includes sub sandwiches and vegetable soup, and each student has his or her own technique for getting the tray down the hall without spilling anything.

Some carry it right under their chins, so they can watch the soup slosh back and forth, stopping when the wave motion threatens to send it spilling over the side of the bowl. Others hold the tray at waist level, taking baby steps, so the trip to from kitchen to classroom can take five minutes or more.

To the classroom? Yes, to the classroom. Fountain Rock does not have a cafeteria, and to make matters worse, it's one of the so-called "open" schools, so that while some students are trying to listen to their teacher, others are marching alongside what passes for partitions with trays full of food.

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Ginger Stevens, chairman of the school's Citizens Advisory Committee, whose fourth child is now going through the school, asked me to come out and watch the process, which is remarkably quiet, considering that 350 students have to deal with the complicated process daily.

First they queue up to get food that's delivered from the satellite kitchen, then return to their desks, where they eat as quietly as possible. Then they take their trays to a station on the opposite side of the building, put on their coats and head outside for some playground activity. The only accident I saw involved about a teaspoonful of soup spilled on the 26-year-old rug, in place since the building opened.

Stevens says she doesn't want to come across as whiny; she knows other schools have needs as well, possibly even more urgent than those at Fountain Rock. What she would like is for the school system, the county commissioners or someone to commit more money to the capital improvements budget.

In a letter written Oct. 29 of 1996, Stevens noted that capital improvements fund had decreased from $5 million a year in 1994 to $2.5 million for the two years following that. She noted that the $5 million commitment brought a state match of $8 million, for a total of $13 million, while the $2.5 million commitment brought a like amount of state money for a total of $5 million.

Dennis McGee, director of facilities management, confirmed that the current year's allocation from the county commissioners is also $2.5 million. Because the school system is busy renovating schools that were built in the 1950s, major work on Fountain Rock (built in 1971) isn't scheduled until fiscal year 2001 or 2002, he said.

Stevens knows that there are other problems the county faces that make it unlikely that the commissioners can commit a great deal more money to capital improvements. What if, she wonders, there were a way for parents and other interested citizens to contribute to that fund, with some certainty that their donations wouldn't get sucked into the operating budget.

McGee said he's unaware of any fund-raising of that type taking place now, although he said that athletic booster club members at Catoctin High School in Frederick are talking about doing a fund-raiser to get a new gym built there.

If anyone has some thoughts on this, please share them by writing to Editorial Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Whatever is committed to the capital improvements budget from any source, Fountain Rock's problems aren't likely to be solved without a major redesign of the school's interior. Right now it's no more than a warehouse, where classrooms are divided from one another by file cabinets, book cases and the like.

Our children attended such a school, and during one PTA parents' visitation day, one teacher told the children to be quiet so often I felt like reminding her that her students were children, not show dogs to be shushed into silence.

My own elementary school had plenty of walls, and those students who couldn't help jumping out of their seats when they knew how to answer a teacher's questions were not shushed, but encouraged to be enthusiastic.

All too soon our children will be in workplace situations where shouts of glee and raucous laughter are viewed as distractions instead of expressions of enthusiasm. If sending a couple of bucks to a building fund will spare them from being stifled now, count me in.}

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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