School should stay open, group says

Board to consider funding renovations to Charles Carroll

`Not out of the woods'

Outside firm finds no reason to close 72-year-old facility

Carroll County

March 30, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Parents and families of Carroll County's smallest and oldest school cleared their first hurdle last night when the committee studying the fate of 72-year-old Charles Carroll Elementary recommended against closing it.

The Board of Education will consider the group's suggestion to make about $1 million worth of improvements to the building - rather than close it - as the five-member panel sets its 10-year building and renovation plan during the next several months. Approval of that plan in May will mark the final decision whether to close the school.

Many of the more than 50 parents and Charles Carroll alumni gathered last night in the school's gymnasium to hear the committee's presentation expressed relief and anxiety.

Jean Wasmer, a committee member, is the mother of two fifth-grade girls at Charles Carroll. Three generations of her husband's family also attended the red-brick school.

"As much as we feel confident that the building should still be open, we're still wondering," she said, taking a deep breath, "what's the [school] board going to do and what are the commissioners going to do? So we're still not out of the woods yet."

School officials lowered the rating of the building's condition last year from fair to poor, rocketing it up a list of construction priorities, setting in motion a formal site assessment and sparking a flood of concern from community members who cherish the history, tradition and charm of their tiny school, which sits amid hilly farmland about 10 miles north of Westminster.

The "poor" rating meant the school had to be scheduled to be closed or renovated within five years.

In August, a committee of administrators, teachers, parents, school board members and an architect with the Maryland Department of Education began working on that decision, peeking into storage closets and climbing through crawl spaces to get a good look at the building.

So much emotion and history are tied to the school that has educated several generations of some families that the committee at first struggled to understand "that this was not a political process," said Kathleen Sanner, Carroll's facilities director.

Some members thought a decision to close the school had been made.

"We kept saying over and over, `We don't have the information to make that decision yet. We need to get good hard data to make a decision and that we couldn't make this decision emotionally,'" Sanner said. "Getting the assessment report really laid it all out in black and white."

That report came from JAED Corp., a Delaware-based architectural and engineering firm hired to evaluate the building and its systems from top to bottom.

Despite red-flagging a dozen high-priority problems with the school's structure, and water and septic systems, the firm found "no compelling facility-related reasons to consider abandonment of this facility," according to the committee's report to the superintendent.

Fixing the most pressing health and safety needs, including reinforcement of the media center floor, which cannot support the weight of the materials and equipment on it, would cost about $1 million, Sanner said. About 65 percent of that could be covered by the state if the school system qualifies for funding from Maryland's systemic school renovations program.

Other problem areas - a kitchen that is too small and does not have enough freezer space, an electrical system that does not allow the school to use its technology effectively and a lower level that is not accessible to the disabled - would not be fixed until the county can afford a more thorough renovation, possibly after 2008, Sanner told the group last night.

As the committee concluded in its report, "The intrinsic value of Charles Carroll Elementary School as a rural community center and a center of learning, its stable enrollment and documentation that the building is renewable have led the committee to conclude that closure is not warranted."

The committee recommended:

Proceeding with testing and designs to determine whether the septic system can be replaced during the next school year.

Spending $1 million in fiscal year 2003 to address the school's urgent health and safety needs.

Evaluating William Winchester and Freedom elementary schools - the county's other schools that are at least 40 years old and have not been renovated - to determine their priority among capital projects planned in the latter part of the decade.

Investigating the purchase of property adjacent to Charles Carroll to provide room for a backup septic system.

Continuing school maintenance and addressing minor improvements.

In a survey returned by 23 Charles Carroll staff members, all but three reported that the physical condition of the building does not negatively affect the education of the school's 350 pupils.

Describing the building as a cozy community of educators and pupils, staff members suggested that minor improvements - such as adding screens to the windows and overhead fans if air conditioning was unaffordable - would improve the learning environment.

"A school is not bricks, mortar, AC or water," one respondent wrote, "but the students, teachers, staff, parents and community that support the structure."

Asked what suggestions the staff would make, another wrote, "Revere it, cherish it and count ourselves lucky not to have obliterated entirely what will become the benchmark of school population philosophy and education theory in the next 10 years."

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