Return town's high school, group urges 'They cut out heart of this community'

July 28, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Robert Wagner remembers when Mount Airy had a high school. Like other residents, he remembers neighbors mingling at the school fair and crowding the gym to see a local drama club's productions.

He also remembers when the school closed -- and students were bused to a new, larger school 13 miles away.

"They cut out the heart of this community when they took our school away, and we never have regained the cohesiveness we had," said Wagner, a longtime resident who was on the front lines of the battle to save the school.

Now, 31 years after Mount Airy High School became part of South Carroll High School, a group is working for a high school Mount Airy can call its own. Supporters see a high school as a center for cultural and recreational activities for the community of 5,000.

Similar battles are being waged elsewhere in Maryland. But more than many towns, Mount Airy relied on its high school to create a sense of community. The town straddles the Carroll and Frederick counties' line, and shares its borders with Howard and Montgomery counties.

"We're a four-county community, and the boards of education don't know how to run a school in a four-county community," said Lewis C. Dixon, a former mayor who led the fight to preserve the high school. "If the school was located in our community, many [students] would walk to school, and people would have the right to get involved with the education of their children."

A local high school would "pull the community together and give it a sense of pride," said Roger D. Rich, chairman of the Mount Airy High School Committee. Now, depending on where area students live, they travel eight to 14 miles to high school.

The sentiment is nearly the same in Emmitsburg, where Mayor William Carr is working to reopen a middle school that closed to merge with a Thurmont school in the 1980s. The town's high school closed in 1969.

"Our premise is that children are better educated in their own community. We realize we're not large enough to have a high school," Carr said.

The schools' closings have curtailed the Frederick County town's efforts to grow. "Young people don't come here to live, because there are no schools," Carr said.

In the coal-mining town of Westernport in Western Maryland, a banner proclaiming "Stop Educational Discrimination, Stop the Busing and Bring Our Children Home Now" hangs on Main Street, indicating that residents haven't forgotten the 1986 consolidation that closed their high school.

Resident Tom Marsh, who has fought for more than 10 years to reopen the high school and is running for the Allegany County school board, declined to comment on the status of that effort.

However, Allegany County Superintendent John O'Connell said the school board has no plans to reopen Bruce High School in Westernport.

An article posted on the American Association of School Administrators Web site notes that, "In small towns that still have a school, community members recognize it as the hub of local activities and a major resource to the town."

Gary D. Marx, AASA senior associate executive director, said opposition to consolidation is usually short-lived after a merged school opens.

"Traditionally, people will not want to see their school combined with another school. Typically, within a year or two, they are satisfied with the attention their students receive," he said.

In its quest to get a high school, Mount Airy faces an uphill battle for political and other reasons. The school boards of Frederick and Carroll counties would have to work together, and neither has warmed to the proposal.

"I tried really hard to come up with something positive, but the only thing I can come up with is that it would be nice for that little area," said Jean A. Smith, president of the Frederick County Board of Education.

She said the proposal would require redistricting, which is always controversial. The counties would have to reconcile differences in curriculum. Funding authorities in both counties would have to agree.

"I just don't see our County Commissioners being willing to build a school in Carroll County and the Carroll County Commissioners being willing to build a school in Frederick County," Smith said.

Carroll school board President C. Scott Stone was equally doubtful. Carroll is building high schools in South Carroll and Westminster to accommodate a burgeoning student population, he pointed out.

"Once those buildings are finished, there is no justification for a new high school. It's particularly not justified in Mount Airy, based on the numbers I've seen," he said.

The committee's hopes rest on enrollment and population projections for the rapidly growing area.

"The success of this whole thing comes down to numbers," Rich said.

As evidence that a cooperative venture between school boards could work, he notes bicounty schools such as Delmar High School, shared by Wicomico County and the adjoining Delaware school district.

Rich has a promise from the Frederick County Commissioners to talk with their counterparts in Carroll.

He also has a promise that Yale Stenzler, head of the State Department of Education's school construction program, will listen to his report.

"All we're asking is a forum for discussion. We're not asking for a commitment at this point," he said.

But the high school committee's goal is clear. It is working for "a sense of community," Rich said. School plays and sporting events would help erase the divisions created by four counties' boundaries.

"This is not two or three people on a pet project," he said. "This came forward from the people of Mount Airy."

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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