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School consolidation meetings were legal

March 23, 2001

School consolidation meetings were legal



By TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The committee that wrote the report on possible school consolidations was not legally bound to advertise or announce meeting dates on the issue because it was not considered a public body under the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

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The Facilities Review Committee, which was initiated by the Washington County Commissioners, met about six to eight times since June 30, said Dennis McGee, the Board of Education's director of facilities management.

McGee, along with the board's executive director of support services, William McKinley; County Commissioners John Schnebly and William Wivell; and School Board members J. Herbert Hardin and Mary Wilfong were on the committee.

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Parents have complained that they weren't permitted to sit on the committee and that they weren't told of the meetings.

On Feb. 13, the committee said it would no longer hold meetings, but decided a week later to meet to discuss a timeline for the School Board to set up town meetings on consolidation.

McKinley acknowledged the meetings were never publicized in the newspaper but that committee members notified those who they thought would be interested in attending when the meetings would take place.

McGee said all of the meetings were always open to the public.

"The doors are always open," McGee said.

The Maryland Open Meetings Act states a public body is one that is created by the Maryland Constitution, state statute, county charter, an ordinance, rule, resolution or bylaw; or is an executive order of the governor or of the chief executive of a political subdivision.

Because the committee was not created under any of those actions, it did not have to follow the laws set forth in the Open Meetings Act.

Wivell said the Board of County Commissioners and the Board of Education informally agreed to form the committee and on member selection.

"It was very informal," Schnebly said. "We did never perceive this committee as having authority other than to compile some facts."

The consolidation report has been presented to the County Commissioners and the School Board. The School Board has the power to reject or accept some or all of the report, school officials have said. The board is expected to make that decision on Aug. 21.

The report states the county could save $1.6 million a year while maintaining the quality of education by consolidating Winter Street and Salem Avenue; Smithsburg and Cascade; Maugansville and Conococheague; and Fountain Rock, Emma K. Doub and Funkstown elementary schools.

A new school would be built to house Maugansville and Conococheague students, while Funkstown students would be split between Fountain Rock and Emma K. Doub. Winter Street, Cascade, Maugansville, Conococheague and Funkstown would close under the plan.

Schnebly said if he had the chance to do it again, he would ask that the meetings be more accessible to the public.

"If I had to do this over again, I would have asked that we had a recording secretary and published these things."

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