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Commissioners question redistricting

December 27, 2001

Commissioners question redistricting



By TARA REILLY
tarar@herald-mail.com


Two weeks after a 50-member committee wrapped up its two-month-long study on the redrawing of school boundaries and the possible closing of two schools, some Washington County elected officials are questioning the credibility of the group and the plausibility of some of its 12 recommendations.

"I appreciate the need to have the public included, but they really can't make decisions regarding the economic feasibility of keeping one school open or closing a school," County Commissioner John Schnebly said of the Blue Ribbon Redistricting Committee. "They can't be objective because they have no financial stake in paying the bills."

Schnebly claims having less schools in the system would tighten the School Board's budget by reducing school maintenance and staffing costs.

"If this was somebody's business, they'd have made some decisions on realigning these buildings a long time ago," Schnebly said of Maugansville and Conococheague elementary schools.

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The Washington County Board of Commissioners is the main funding source for the School Board.

Jenny Belliotti, a member of the committee, dismissed Schnebly's comments by saying the public does have an interest in the county's finances.

"As a taxpayer, I do have a stake in paying the bills," Belliotti said. "To say that the committee doesn't have enough knowledge or stake in it is false."

Belliotti is president of the Washington County Council of PTAs.

In early December, the committee of parents, teachers, principals and some School Board administrators, recommended renovating the aging Maugansville and Conococheague elementary schools rather than closing them. The committee also made 10 other recommendations dealing with the shifting of enrollments in some of the county's elementary, middle and high schools. The committee was formed by the School Board.

"If the School Board had a citizen panel way back when we were considering closing places like Fairplay, Wilson, Indian Springs ... those schools would still be open," Schnebly said.

Belliotti said the committee did nothing more regarding Maugansville and Conocoheauge than follow what was already part of the School Board's Capital Improvement Plan. The schools are listed in the plan as renovation projects.

The board will decide Jan. 22 which recommendations to approve. The committee was charged with cutting enrollments at some schools and increasing it at others, but it also considered balancing the percentages of students receiving free and reduced meals in some schools.

School Board member J. Herbert Hardin said adhering to the recommendations regarding the Maugansville and Conococheague schools would cost the board a lot of money.

"It's going to be very, very expensive to do it the way they want us to do it. It's going to cost us the equivalent of a high school," Hardin said, referring to the $28 million the board recently spent on renovating South Hagerstown High School.

"They're saying you can go in and make some minor renovations and it will last us another 75 years," Hardin said.

Board administrators have said renovating Maugansville and Conococheague would cost $14.2 million, but closing both schools and building a new one would cost $11.1 million, saving the county $3.1 million.

Interim Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said she stands by the work of the group.

"The committee did some excellent work," Morgan said. "I have great faith in our citizens who analyzed this very carefully. We had well-educated, intelligent, analytical people on that committee."

"They are stakeholders, and they should have a voice in it," School Board President Edward Forrest said.

Hardin said the School Board hasn't made any decisions and will consider all committee recommendations and comments from concerned residents.

Hardin said he expects many residents to speak at the Wednesday hearing and that School Board members have been inundated with phone calls and letters from residents.

Last year, the Facilities Review Committee, formed to study the feasibility of closing several elementary schools, recommended closing Conococheague and Maugansville elementary schools. That committee, which consisted of School Board members and administrators, Washington County Commissioners and county employees, said the schools were old and in need of repairs.

The School Board shot down the recommendations but board administrators brought back the proposals at meetings with the redistricting committee.

Blue Ribbon Committee Co-Chair Scott Nicewarner said the group's recommendations are not definite, and the School Board will have the final say.

"We put forth what we felt was in the best interest of our students, and we'll stand by it," Nicewarner said. "The Board of Education is the final decision-maker, and I'm sure they will also do what they feel is best."

Belliotti said she hopes the committee's recommendations are strongly considered.

"I certainly hope that they will be taken seriously," she said. "There's a lot of value in our recommendations."

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