Change in school plans sought

Commissioners favor additions, redistricting

April 11, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Faced with competing demands for new roads, economic development and other county needs, Carroll County commissioners are asking the school board to rethink its plans for a new high school and middle school for Westminster.

In a discussion paper submitted to the school board, the commissioners estimated the county could save more than $32 million by redistricting and constructing additions instead of building a high school and middle school.

"It makes more sense economically," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier told the school board last week. "We're interested in separating necessities from niceties."

But it appears the commissioners may have made their case too late.

School board members have objected to the plan, arguing that such a strategy would cause construction delays, create too-large schools and ultimately impair academics.

School board President Gary W. Bauer said his board does not intend to change its school construction plans this year.

"That's it for now," he said in an interview Friday. "We made ourselves clear."

Changing school construction strategy would upset plans for Century High School in South Carroll, school officials said. Architectural and engineering plans for the new school are complete, and construction is expected to begin this summer. The commissioners' proposal would require the school system to increase the school's 1,200-student capacity by 400 to 600 students. The design changes would delay the opening one year, until 2002.

A similar addition could be built on South Carroll High School.

The changes would cost about $18 million and, along with redistricting, would eliminate the need for a new Westminster high school, projected to cost about $30 million.

A new Westminster middle school, which is planned to open in 2002, would be unnecessary if the county redistricts when Hampstead's new Shiloh Middle School opens in August 2000.

"It isn't popular or easy, but redistricting will be necessary to avoid the $15 million cost of another middle school and the additional annual operating costs," the commissioners' discussion paper states.

Long bus rides opposed

Bauer said he objects to redistricting if it causes pupils to be hauled halfway across the county.

"It would take kids within sight of Westminster schools and mean pulling them all the way down to South Carroll," he said.

Bauer, however, said the board is open to re-examining the need for a new Westminster middle school next year when the school system's capital improvement program is debated.

In a written response to the commissioners' proposal, school officials warned that building additions and redistricting would cause more problems than such measures would solve.

Increasing capacity at Century High School, for example, would add $9.8 million to the project and delay the opening one year until 2002, creating crowding at Liberty High School. School officials said Liberty's enrollment would balloon to 1,822 -- 156 percent of capacity.

An addition to South Carroll High School would also be troublesome. School officials said its facilities -- such as the boiler, athletic fields and parking lot -- may not support 300 more students.

Finally, school officials said, putting additions onto high schools would interfere with learning during construction. The additions would make the schools significantly larger -- 1,600 to 1,800 students -- which may cause problems for students with special needs.

School board member C. Scott Stone also argued that the school board has recommended that high school capacity be limited to 1,200 students.

"This board has already made a decision," he reminded the commissioners in a meeting Wednesday evening. But Frazier said there will be other demands placed on the budget, including money for roads and economic development, during the next fiscal year.

"We think it's important that we build our industrial base so we can have more revenue in the future," she said.

In the short term, that could mean keeping fees and taxes in check so companies would be enticed to open businesses in the county.

Competing priorities

During the meeting Wednesday, Stone asked if Frazier's comments meant that education was no longer a high priority for the commissioners.

Frazier said education was still important.

"It doesn't mean it's less of a priority, but we need to be responsible in how we provide adequate facilities," she said.

Though the commissioners' proposal may not immediately change school construction plans, the discussion will likely continue.

"It's good to talk these concerns over," Bauer said, adding that he would like to see the two boards meet every six weeks as they have in the past.

"We need to get back to that. We need to get our staffs together to work these things through."

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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