County divided over plans for school in Westminster

South Carroll parents balk at new project, redistricting plan

February 27, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare and David L. Greene | Mary Gail Hare and David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Two thousand, two hundred fifty-seven.

That's how many students are projected to attend Westminster High School in 2002. And that number is at the core of a debate dividing Carroll County.

Parents in central and northern Carroll County say 2,257 is too many students for one building. The statistic is fueling their quest to get a second high school in Westminster. But their arguments also are driving a wedge into the county, pitting Westminster, the county seat, against the rapidly developing exurbs in the southern part.

South Carroll residents -- in communities such as Eldersburg, Winfield and Sykesville -- say 2,257 is a lot of students, but they add that Westminster's large high school can handle the crowd. They want to halt the project and spend the money hiring teachers.

Despite getting their new high school -- Century High, which will open in 2001 -- South Carroll parents say that if any county area needs relief for crowded schools, it is theirs.

Parents in a school system are usually united behind quality education. Indeed, Carroll parents, like many nationwide, have collectively been calling on their system to hire more teachers and reduce class size. But the region-against-region fight shows how quickly parents can turn on each other.

Emotions are high.

"Westminster [High] is too big in this day and age," said Cynthia M. Parr, a Finksburg parent who supports building another school. "Managing that many kids and assuring their safety is like trying to get your arms around Jell-O."

Reassigning students

The debate began last month when a committee, chaired by Parr, proposed reassigning more than 4,000 students to balance enrollment throughout the county and bring as many schools as possible under capacity.

The shift would be mostly from south to north, prompting many South Carroll parents to complain. They said the plan would uproot their children for the sole purpose of increasing enrollment in the Westminster area and help the county win state financial support for the new high school. Parr denied that.

"The redistricting is an unnatural shift of enrollment to accommodate and justify a new high school that is not appropriate," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, a father of four school-age children.

"While I recognize the need to alleviate problems at Westminster High, I believe this committee can find a workable solution without new construction at this time," he said.

All over the county, people are talking about numbers. Many question the need for the new school, bantering about terms like "enrollment projections" and "clean feeder systems."

The redistricting committee wants to cap the Westminster High student body at 1,600 in a building designed for 2,000 and use the extra space to expand vocational classes.

School officials say they have long looked for ways to reduce enrollment at Westminster High.

Their efforts reflect a gradual change of philosophy in many counties. Though large high schools were once popular, many systems now favor smaller facilities -- with 1,200 to 1,600 students -- which, they say, create a more personal learning environment.

Convincing the state

South Carroll parents aren't buying that as an argument for a new school in the north, and so far, neither is the state.

This month, the Board of Public Works, which chooses projects that are to receive state school construction dollars, delayed giving preliminary approval for a new high school in Westminster and will reconsider in spring.

Barbara M. Strein, Maryland's deputy director of school construction, said the county must demonstrate the need for the 1,200-seat, $38 million school by showing that neighboring high schools are over capacity by at least 600. If the county cannot prove it has students to fill a new school, the state will not help.

Carroll cannot handle the cost on its own but it is pushing forward, county officials said. Strein said she cannot recall a county building a high school without state money.

"I don't think the state is going to participate based on the numbers," said County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "But, the commissioners have not discussed this at all. The wheels are still turning."

The commissioners approved the project in December. The building would open adjacent to Cranberry Station Elementary in fall 2002.

Next month, the school board is expected to approve a $1.3 million contract with a construction manager. Grading is set to begin this spring. Vernon F. Smith, assistant superintendent for administration, said his staff firmly believes in the project as a way to relieve crowding at Westminster High.

South Carroll's stance

But South Carroll is developing faster than Westminster and needs schools more, the project's critics say. Enrollment numbers do not justify a new Westminster high, said Sykesville Councilwoman Jeannie Nichols.

"They are talking about building a new school for 250 students," Nichols said.

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