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Parents eye legal action to halt plans for Eastern Primary

October 03, 2009|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- A group of parents with children in Washington County Public Schools said they might take the school system to court in an effort to halt construction of the proposed Eastern Primary School on the east end of Hagerstown.

Bill Lang, who has four children at Boonsboro Elementary School, said several parents are considering whether to pool their financial resources to take legal action.

"All options are open," he said.

The $25 million Eastern Primary School is being considered as part of a redistricting plan to help alleviate overcrowding. If redistricting is approved, it would affect 20 of 26 elementary schools in the county and roughly 1,500 students. Many of those students would be bused to Eastern Primary School, which has a state-rated capacity of 695 students.

The school is slated to open in 2011.

The Washington County Board of Education is scheduled to consider a bid for the construction of Eastern Primary School during a meeting Tuesday.

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Deputy Superintendent Boyd Michael said Eastern Primary School is in a location that can accommodate overflow from several schools.

"Eastern Primary is in a flexible area to work with," Michael said. "You touch a lot of different districts."

Michael said the construction of Eastern Primary School has been discussed for the past seven years. School officials also talked about building additions to Boonsboro Elementary, he said, but they didn't think the additions would provide sufficient space to handle students from pending developments in that area.

Michael said officials intend to build a school in the southern part of the county when the time is right to receive maximum funding from the state.

"It just doesn't justify a new school at this point," he said.

The state has committed $14 million to build Eastern Primary School, Michael said last week. The remaining $11 million will be provided by the county.

Michael said he felt fortunate that Eastern Primary School was one of 25 proposed schools to receive state funding out of 90 requests.

Dottie Gruhler, who has two children at Old Forge Elementary School, said she believes school officials aren't considering the best interests of the students.

"That irks me," Gruhler said. "That is so wrong because they want to bus kids to fill a school ... Parents across the county are very, very mad."

She said parents have been gathering petitions and took their fight to the public in a newspaper advertisement. On Sept. 27, an advertisement in The Herald-Mail encouraged parents to attend the school board meeting scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday to oppose the construction of Eastern Primary School.

"Eastern Primary represents $25 million of taxpayer money not being utilized where it is needed most," the advertisement said. "... We would like to request an additional evening meeting be scheduled before the vote takes place to allow all the parents who work during the day to be able to attend this important meeting."

Several other parents whose children would be affected by redistricting said last week officials should build a school where it is needed instead of busing children halfway across the county. They suggested delaying the redistricting plan until more input can be gathered from the public.

In January, the board directed the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee -- an organization with members appointed by the board -- to address the redistricting issue. The committee met several times and held three public forums in September to get feedback from the public. Each resident who wanted to speak was given three minutes. Committee members agreed to refrain from engaging in open discussions at the forums, in part to avoid confrontations.

Jennifer Ashbaugh, who has two children at Old Forge Elementary, said she believes the committee should have requested ideas from the public before creating a redistricting plan.

One of Ashbaugh's concerns about redistricting, she said, is that children and their parents won't be able to participate together in school activities because they'll be too far apart.

"I would much rather my children be in (portable classrooms) ... than to be uprooted," she said.

Lang said school officials should consider building on to overcapacity schools instead of busing kids from their communities.

"This isn't rocket science," Lang said. "It's about doing what's best for the children."

He said the board should think long and hard before it approves Eastern Primary School.

"I can't see how any politician would put themselves in this position," Lang said. "They're putting themselves out there."

Lang said school officials created what he termed a "cloak of secrecy" by failing to notify specific neighborhoods about how they would be affected by redistricting.

Lisa Milligan, who has one child at Old Forge Elementary School, said she believes school officials should have created focus groups long ago to get the public's input.

"All we're asking for is communication," she said. "It's a trust issue."

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