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Overcrowding top issue at forum for Washington County Board of Education candidates

February 08, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HALFWAY -- After about 30 minutes of discussion one thing was clear: There is a problem.

Nine candidates competing against each other for four open seats on the Washington County Board of Education agreed Thursday that the county's schools are overcrowded, and something needs to be done. They were asked to tackle possible solutions during a discussion that was part of a public forum hosted by the Citizens for Protection of Washington County.

More than 50 people attended the forum at The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway.

Candidates were asked to briefly talk about themselves and the issues facing Washington County Public Schools before taking questions from the audience. Following those questions, they talked amongst themselves about overcrowding issues and possible solutions.

The nine candidates are running in a nonpartisan race, and the primary election is Tuesday.

The candidates are Donna Brightman, Jacqueline B. Fischer, W. Edward Forrest, Meredith Fouche, Justin M. Hartings, Tom Janus, Margaret Lowery, Wayne D. Ridenour and Russell F. Williams II.

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Federal No Child Left Behind legislation, redistricting, state assessments, school buildings and funding for schools dominated the conversation.

Some candidates said that adapting existing vacant buildings in Washington County could be the answer to overcrowding at existing schools. However, the cost of renovating an existing building could come close to or exceed the cost of building a new school, said Ridenour, 56, who is a member of the current Board of Education.

Williams, 65, is a former member of the board, and agreed that the cost of those renovations would have to be studied before that decision is made.

"Yes, there are vacant buildings," he said. "But the amount of refitting just to produce classrooms in the buildings would be very large."

Candidates discussed the location of the new Rockland Woods Elementary School being built south of Hagerstown. Most agreed the location was less than ideal, and that current redistricting woes are a result of poor planning.

Brightman, 56, who is the board's vice president, said that the Board of Education must be involved in conversations with Washington County Commissioners about land for new school buildings.

She did say that some current issues could have been resolved by making Rockland Woods Elementary a more enticing option for parents reluctant to move their children from their current schools.

"If we had made the new school a carrot instead of a stick ... if we had put a magnet program or some other program in there, it would have filled itself," Brightman said.

Fischer, 62, a former board member, said that could have been a reality if the Board of Education had added that request to its charge for the facilities and enrollment advisory committee.

"We need to look at the whole picture for the county," she said. "I think we do need to think creatively, at least in the interim. Hopefully, down the road we'll be able to ... and build the schools we need."

Fouche, 56, said he sympathized with the groups that are involved with redistricting.

"It's not pleasant for them," he said.

Lowery, 60, said that through her research, there are empty seats in the county's middle schools. She said that there could be a possibility of examining kindergarten through eighth-grade programs to utilize that space.

Forrest, 44, a former board member, said it is important to work with other governmental agencies when tackling the problem of the county's overcrowded schools. He said there were some "missteps" in the planning for Rockland Woods Elementary -- the county's newest elementary school.

He said he would like to foster a close relationship among the local delegation, County Commissioners and the Board of Education.

Student achievement also was discussed Thursday.

Hartings, 36, said that No Child Left Behind legislation has placed additional emphasis on helping all students pass state assessments. This could lead to fewer resources being used on the students who are performing well, he said.

"So, you have kids who are bright who are bored in school," he said.

Hartings called that "destructive," and said that there are programs in the county's schools that are working to address that problem.

Janus, 65, advocated for expansion of the county's technical high school and said there should be more of a focus on placing additional programs there.

"The key here is that the highly skilled jobs that don't require a college degree are absolutely required and our school system needs to provide them," he said.




Dates to remember

Primary election date: Feb. 12

General election date: Nov. 4

On the Web

To learn more about the candidates for the Washington County Board of Education, go to www.herald-mail.com and click on the 2008 Election Coverage box.

At the site, you'll find a video of each candidate explaining why voters should vote for him or her, profiles of each, and more.

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