They went to complain - about school construction projects that were not scheduled or not scheduled soon enough in their communities.
But within the first 30 minutes of last night's public hearing on Carroll County's proposed 10-year school construction and renovation plan, many were cheering.
School officials had included new projects added to the proposal hours before the meeting began. They included new elementary schools for the southwest and southeast areas of the county, although school facilities director Kathleen Sanner warned that state school planners would be unlikely to approve and contribute funding to both.
A renovation of North Carroll Middle School was placed ahead of a new South Carroll area middle school on the 10-year plan. A fine arts center for South Carroll High School was scheduled a year sooner. Mount Airy Town Councilman Frank Johnson was the first to speak after the proposal was unveiled.
"We appreciate the addition of a new middle school and elementary school in the South Carroll area. Although the need is there, it will be there much sooner than 2005 and 2006," he said, referring to the projected completion date of those projects.
About 230 residents from nearly every corner of the county crowded into South Carroll High School's auditorium last night to ask the superintendent to change the school system's facilities master plan to accommodate a school construction project in their community.
Some wanted to add a construction project. Others wanted a construction project nudged up the priority list. Many wore their school colors and stood whenever someone from their school spoke to show the board how much support there was for their particular request.
Once approved by the school board and funded by the county commissioners, the annually drafted plan serves as a blueprint for the school system's capital spending and sets priorities for school construction and renovation projects for 10 years.
The proposal under consideration by the school board this year includes millions of dollars in projects to address school crowding; renovations and expansions; renewal projects such as roof and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning replacements; and building improvements such as the installation of air-conditioning systems.
In addition to completing Century High, which will open in August in Eldersburg, and Winters Mill High, which is under construction outside Westminster, the proposed plan includes several big-ticket items.
Among them are a $17.5 million renovation at North Carroll Middle to be completed August 2004, a $14 million middle school for the South Carroll area to open August 2005, a $10.5 million fine-arts addition at South Carroll High, scheduled to open in August 2006, and a $9.4 million expansion of career and technology programs at Westminster and South Carroll high schools to open in August 2004 and August 2006, respectively. The new elementary schools proposed last night do not have price tags.
Residents from Mount Airy arrived en masse, intending to complain that their needs were being overlooked simply because they live in the extreme southwest corner of the county.
Michele Johnson and her co-founders of Mount Airy Citizens for Tomorrow instead thanked the board but reiterated their need for a middle and high school as well to stem crowded classrooms that they expect will worsen as additional housing developments sprout where farm fields once were.
"There is a crisis in Mount Airy and you have faced up to it by amending this plan," she said. "I have one small request: Please build them sooner."
A parade of parents, faculty and alumni from Charles Carroll Elementary, the county's oldest and smallest school, also spoke up, hoping to persuade the board not to close their tiny school amid hilly farmland about 10 miles north of Westminster.
After a study of the school, officials downgraded the building's condition last year from fair to poor, sparking a flood of concern from community members.
School officials have proposed $1 million worth of renovations to Charles Carroll to correct health and safety problems and keep it open until a full modernization can be completed.
"We want to make sure they hear that the [architectural and engineering firm hired to assess the building's condition] says there's nothing that warrants closing the school," said Bill Ullrich, who served on the assessment committee, in an interview before the hearing. His two sons and daughter attend Charles Carroll.
"We want to make sure they get the idea that we're not the typical school," Ullrich said. "We're a rural community really focused around the school and the parent support and community support for that school are just above and beyond anything else you could find."