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Discussion of school capacity must begin

December 13, 2004|by Scott Nicewarner

Washington County Public Schools are quickly approaching a major crossroads on its mission to be a world-class system. The school system, while trumpeting the improvements of test scores and its standing within the state related to the other school districts, is experiencing a situation where students have classrooms on stages and closets, as well as "farms" of portable classrooms.

As a member of the last school redistricting committee, we were able to foresee in 2001 many of the realities of 2004-05. We understood that, in direct contradiction to BOE forecasts, population and development were going to increase throughout the county in this time frame. We also understood, in direct contradiction to BOE forecasts, that children would inhabit many of the new developments that were, at that time, in the concept stage.

The recommendations put forth by our committee, including keeping Conococheague and Maugansville elementary schools open with remodeling, increasing the capacity of E. Russell Hicks Middle School and moving more students among schools than was approved by the BOE, are now being revealed as ideas ahead of their time.

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The BOE needs to immediately change and strengthen the mission of the Facilities Review Committee (FRC), requiring that it meet once a month for the extended future in order to stay current on issues related to growth. In addition, this committee should be made up of citizens from each of our county school's feeder systems.

This ensure that each school is represented at the table. WCCPTA would work diligently to recruit citizens who would play an active role of advocacy for their school system, as well as being stewards for the other feeder schools in identifying their needs.

Finally, I would suggest the BOE recruit a retired school administrator/educator to head up this committee. This will enable someone knowledgeable with our county to lead this important committee, eliminating the learning curve that is apparently hampering our BOE staff currently.

Other recommendations for discussion on our school system's population crisis are:

1. Relocate the Antietam Academy out of South Hagerstown High School and utilize one of our county's existing structures for this school. There are several locations available within our county, especially in downtown Hagerstown, that would be well-suited for this size of school.

This will allow South Hagerstown's students the ability to utilize all the available space for its increasing student population.

2. Remodel Conococheague Elementary in addition to the Maugansville Elementary construction and provide this growing area of our county the capacity it needs. If remodeling Conococheague is such an expensive option, then educate the community on why this would be so versus building a new school that will house more students, and increase class sizes, and transportation needs.

3. Implement stricter rules and enforcement for special permissions regarding which school a student attends as recommended by the last redistricting committee. Only in emergency situations should students be permitted to attend a school outside of their home district.

4. Look to buy back some of the schools that were closed in the past and utilize them for the academy system. Surrey School, Broadway School, or other locations mentioned before throughout the county would be great places to institute the academy system of learning (Finance, Medical, Agricultural) and not increase the burden on our existing facilities.

To finance these projects, impact fees and/or strong Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances (APFOs) are a must for every municipality in the county.

Developers need to be accountable for the huge developments they are building and provide for the children in them a good environment for education. We must also stop the games developers are playing in an effort to have their developments annexed into non-APFO municipalities to escape the county AFPO If revenues for school construction do not come from these fees, then they must come from a tax increase.

If local municipalities do not enact APFOs, and the citizens of this county or its politicians do not support tax increases, what is left? An alternative would be for our state to consider utilizing a school construction bond program similar to that in West Virginia (in which the citizens vote on whether the district will issue bonds to finance the construction of school facilities).

The BOE, in the meantime, can still be proactive and get the people together to begin to study and make recommendations for dealing with our growth. The BOE does not need an $80,000-plus a year planning director to do this when it has knowledgeable people in this county that can provide the same input. This will eliminate the high learning curve being experienced by the current BOE staff.

As the residents of Boonsboro are organizing to advocate for their school system, all citizens of Washington County need to get involved and provide some constructive debate for our elected leaders on this subject before the new budget year gets into gear.

If you don't agree with these recommendations, then provide additional viewpoints to our local leaders that you feel may benefit them. Likewise, please let them know if you agree with some or all of these recommendations. PTA stands for "every child, one voice." With the issues facing education in Washington County as we enter 2005, it is time to have your voice heard.




Scott Nicewarner is president of the Washington County Council of PTAs.

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