Fight for school won

Grass-roots effort keeps Ferndale Elementary open

Board approves repairs

Superintendent calls `patch and paste' a disservice to pupils

October 11, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The crumbling but beloved Ferndale Elementary School - after teetering on the brink of closure for years - won a promise yesterday that it will stay open and it will be fixed.

The Anne Arundel County school board voted 6-1 to keep the 76-year-old school open and to put $450,000 into it next year, with more money in the future, until Ferndale is whole again.

Supporters of the tiny school, who waged an intense, personal struggle to save it, couldn't believe their grass-roots effort had succeeded. The school, they said, is vital to the life and character of their working-class community in north Anne Arundel County.

"I think I'll just faint dead away," said Ferndale Principal Mary Grande upon hearing the news. "We had our back-to-school meeting last night, and the question was hanging in the air, so this is really wonderful."

The money still must be approved by the County Council. But by making Ferndale a priority and by requesting less than half a million dollars, the school board has made it likely Ferndale will get at least part of the money it has sought for so long.

In any case, school board members made it clear they will not close the community fixture, although Superintendent Carol S. Parham recommended doing that two years ago.

"This sends the distinct message back to the community that we're not going to close Ferndale," said board member Michael McNelly, "and that the Board of Education wants to bring it up to par with the rest of the educational facilities in the county."

But Parham said $450,000 would not put the school in the same league as other county schools, and noted the promise of future money could not be guaranteed. Ferndale has a small corner of land behind a light rail track, with a modest playground and a leaky roof.

Fixing Ferndale would cost $3 million to $9 million, according to an engineering study last year. The school board was unwilling to put that much money into a school with 155 children - among the smallest in Central Maryland.

"Every child in Ferndale Elementary School deserves the same state-of-the-art school as any other community in this county," Parham told the board yesterday. "I cannot sit here and be quiet as we just patch and paste. I mean to provide the children of Ferndale with everything the children of Severna Park or Crofton or Broadneck have. And we do ourselves and them a disservice to ask for anything less."

The school board earmarked the $450,000 for a new roof and waterproofing. The school also needs new walls, new floors and other modern amenities such as sprinklers. The room that doubles as a cafeteria and gym frequently floods after normal rainfalls.

The engineering study said the school building "has been made almost uninhabitable by constant water intrusion."

But Ferndale residents say their school can - and should - be saved. They say small schools serve children better than large ones. They like it that the Ferndale teachers know the names of all their pupils, and know their families, too.

"This is a nice little community, and we want to keep it that way," said 85-year-old Louise E. Layton, the first of four generations of her family to attend the school. She still lives across the street from it.

"I felt sorry for some of those teachers, who were sitting on a hot griddle, not knowing from year to year if they'll be back," Layton said. "We've learned to love that little school, and kept it up as good as we can."

The only school board member to vote against putting money into the school, Vaughn Brown, said he couldn't justify keeping the school open when nearby elementary schools have hundreds of empty seats - and better facilities.

"Unfortunately, the [Ferndale] building has outlived its useful life as a school," Brown said. "We have plenty of seats in the north county feeder system. We're facing huge challenges with all the projects we need to accomplish and the fiscal climate we're going into."

Ferndale Elementary was added near the middle of a priority list of 30 construction and maintenance projects that the school board approved yesterday and will send to the County Council. All told, the school board requested $68 million. It will be lucky to get half that much.

Right above Ferndale on that list is $2 million to purchase window air-conditioning units for half of the 29 county schools that don't have central air. Parents at Benfield Elementary School in Severna Park, among others, had pushed for the window units, saying their children can't learn in hot classrooms.

The board agreed, unanimously and without comment.

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