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A South County school dilemma

BOE members weigh options on replacement for Sharpsburg school

September 08, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Sharpsburg Elementary School second grade teacher, Erin Harrell, engages her students Friday morning in their classroom in the main school building.
By Kevin G. Gilbert / Staff Photographer

Remembering the housing growth that southern Washington County experienced before the recession, and knowing several housing developments are planned for that area, some school board members are concerned that plans to replace Sharpsburg Elementary School won’t be enough to accommodate the potential growth.

The Educational Facilities Master Plan that the Board of Education approved in June, and the six-year capital improvement plan the board approved last week, call for replacing Sharpsburg Elementary in 2019 with a bigger, 471-seat school.

“I think ... we could find ourselves in a situation where we would not only have to do Sharpsburg, but we may still have to do another school,” board member Wayne D. Ridenour said during the board’s discussion last Tuesday about the capital improvement plan.

“I want to know what are our options in that part of the county,” Ridenour said Thursday in a telephone interview.

School system officials have said the larger three-round school, to replace the two-round Sharpsburg Elementary, also would help alleviate overcrowding at Boonsboro Elementary School.

A two-round school would have two classrooms for each grade, although sometimes a school has classroom distribution set up differently because of the different numbers of students at each grade level.

Ridenour isn’t the only board member concerned that a new Sharpsburg Elementary School won’t be big enough to accommodate potential growth in southern Washington County.

Board President Justin Hartings said he doesn’t believe building a bigger Sharpsburg Elementary School would solve the long-term capacity problems in that area. Factoring into that belief is how many new residential units are planned in the Keedysville-Boonsboro area, he said.

The June facilities master plan lists six planned developments, with 444 planned housing units, in the Boonsboro Elementary School district that could affect the number of students.

Those include Sycamore Run, which is planning for 104 single-family homes off Boonsboro’s South Main Street, also known as Alternate U.S. 40, and a new section of the Graystone development that calls for 170 townhomes and single-family homes off Della Lane in Boonsboro, according to the master plan and Boonsboro Town Planner Megan Clark.

In the spring of 2012, the school board made replacing Sharpsburg Elementary a higher priority than building a new South County elementary school. The South County elementary school is not on the school system’s 10-year facilities master plan, but “concepts for elementary capacity” is listed with a to-be-determined completion date.

The master plan can change from year to year.

Board member Donna Brightman, who expressed concerns about the South County situation in June, said once the housing market takes off again, the school system can get a better idea of how to address the needed capacity.

Once that growth starts, Brightman said, the school system will “have the ammunition” it needs to build a case for a new South County school, including where a new school should go and where it should be on the board’s priority list for school construction and renovation projects.


What are the options?

To get maximum state funding for a new school, whether the money would be used to replace the current Sharpsburg Elementary School or to build a new South County elementary school, the school system must have student population projections that show the school will be filled by the seventh year after construction starts, according to the master plan.

Some counties build schools without state funds, but Washington County’s Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners — as a matter of practice — always have sought to maximize state funding so as not to put a greater burden on local government than there has to be, Hartings said.

“I support that,” Hartings said.

The long-term plan currently calls for using Sharpsburg Elementary’s seats and the overcrowding at Boonsboro Elementary to justify the need for a bigger Sharpsburg Elementary School.

The options about which school board members have speculated include building a new South County elementary school further east, which could require closing Sharpsburg Elementary to justify its need.

During the Sept. 3 board meeting, Brightman mentioned the possibility of making the current Sharpsburg Elementary a primary school and building a new elementary school in southern Washington County.

Rob Rollins, the school system’s director of facilities planning and development, said to keep Sharpsburg Elementary open for the long run, the entire school would need to be modernized.

When a feasibility study is completed for Sharpsburg Elementary, around 2016 to 2017, officials will look at whether any part of the current Sharpsburg school could be retained or expanded, Rollins said.

Rollins said a committee has not yet been formed to look into sites for a new Sharpsburg Elementary School.

School system officials said in the spring of 2012 that the initial idea was to see if land behind the current Sharpsburg school could be acquired to build a new school in the same area, but another site also is a possibility.

Rollins said a committee of school system and county planning and engineering staff had reviewed a number of sites in and around the Boonsboro area for a new South County school, but that plan hasn’t been finalized.


Developer offers land

Ruff Fant, general partner with King Road Associates (KRA), said his development group has had discussions for years regarding providing land for an elementary school in the Boonsboro area, and sent a formal letter to the school system within the past three years.

Fant said KRA’s proposal was to provide 15 acres for an elementary school, taking care of the developer’s mitigation requirement under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. That ordinance calls for developers to take steps to help provide or fund school space to accommodate student population growth stemming from their developments.

KRA has about 400 acres in the area, including the planned Sycamore Run development, Fant said.

A school could go somewhere in the acreage along both sides of King Road, which, with some exceptions, KRA owns from Md. 34 to Md. 67, Fant said.

This has been talked about for about 10 years, but there have been no negotiations yet for a school site, Fant said.

In a July 29, 2011, letter to Terry L. Baker, president of the Board of County Commissioners, and Ridenour, then-president of the school board, Fant wrote that it has “always been KRA’s intent to provide the new elementary school site as provided in our Annexation Agreement” with the Town of Boonsboro dating to 2006.

Ridenour said he didn’t know how much the school system had looked at that site because the South County elementary school project had been put on the “back burner.” But, Ridenour said, he thought the board would consider any offer KRA made for a school site.

Rollins said the school system committee included any land identified by developers as part of its study.

Ridenour and Rollins said the only offer for a school site from a developer of which they were aware was from King Road Associates.


The situation

After finishing the construction of Bester Elementary School, to open in the next school year, and building a new “West City” elementary school, to open in August 2016, Sharpsburg Elementary School is the school board’s next major school construction priority.

After Winter Street, Bester, and Conococheague elementary schools — all of which are in the works to be replaced with the new Bester and West City schools — Sharpsburg Elementary is the school with the next worst facility rating, of 74 percent, according to the school system’s facilities fact sheet. That rating takes into account physical and functional systems, as well as the school’s site, age, energy management, and enrollment versus capacity.

Sharpsburg Elementary opened in 1936, and an addition was built in 1967, according to the facilities master plan. Another addition was built in 1983, when the school was renovated.

The school, on Shepherdstown Pike west of Sharpsburg, was over its state-rated capacity of 252 students last September, with 303 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, according to school system documents.

Taking into account that pre-kindergarten students only attend school for half a day, Sharpsburg was considered to be at 116 percent capacity last September, school system planning officials said.

The school system’s long-term plan calls for replacing the aging two-round school with a larger three-round school that could accommodate 471 students.

School system officials have said the larger school would help alleviate overcrowding at Boonsboro Elementary School, which also was at 116 percent capacity in September 2012. Boonsboro had 597 students, 83 more students than its state-rated capacity of 514.

Official enrollment figures for this school year are expected to be released later this fall, but both schools were on track to remain overcrowded this school year, planning officials said. Sharpsburg has three portable classrooms and Boonsboro has four portable classrooms, they said.

Sharpsburg was projected to have 289 students this fall and Boonsboro to have 596 students, according to the facilities master plan.


Getting the ball rolling

The school system’s facilities master plan, approved last June, lists six subdivisions in the Boonsboro Elementary school district, five of which are in or just outside Boonsboro, and a sixth near Keedysville.

Board member Jacqueline Fischer said she has been hearing about at least one of those developments since the last time she was on the board, from 2002 to 2006, so, “I can’t really get too excited about it unless I start to see some real movement down there and some buildings going up.”

It’s hard to tell when the housing market will pick up and when it will really get rolling, board members said.

Eventually, the housing market will take off and it makes some sense to consider moving a new Sharpsburg Elementary closer to Keedysville or Boonsboro, Fischer said.

Because funding for Sharpsburg Elementary isn’t called for in the capital improvement plan until fiscal year 2016-17, and the facilities master plan could change, Fischer said she’s “not upset or anxious” about the South County situation.

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