New school urged to ease N. Carroll High overcrowding

Board says at hearing that other steps needed

March 14, 2004|By SUN STAFF

When she walks through the hallways of her high school alma mater, Karen Turner sees familiar spaces used in unfamiliar ways.

The old Student Government Association office at North Carroll High School? It's a classroom. The dusty storage room? Also a classroom. The mysterious spaces that she and her friends always wondered about but knew better than to wander into? Yes, they've been converted into classrooms as well.

And that's not all.

Boxes of paper fill a stairwell-turned-storage-closet. An auditorium balcony serves as a classroom. And teachers without even that scrap of instructional space are issued carts to push from room to room.

"They're like candy stripers. I think it's awful," said Turner, who has two children attending the Hampstead school from which she graduated 20 years ago. "Something needs to be done."

Turner joined about 350 other parents, teachers and community members Thursday night at a public hearing to suggest ways to solve soaring student enrollment, which is expected to leave the school with 350 to 400 more students than it has room for next year.

That overcrowding is projected to worsen as residential development continues in the Westminster, Manchester and Hampstead neighborhoods that the school serves. By the 2007 school year, 1,860 to 2,050 students are projected to attend classes in the building built for 1,340.

The overwhelming preference of the people gathered in North Carroll's auditorium Thursday was to relieve the crowding by building a new high school.

Instructors told of teaching 32 students in rooms meant for half that many, and parents complained about their children being crammed into classes with as many as 39 classmates.

They implored administrators not to solve the problem by transferring their children to other schools. They warned of the security risks and of limited chances for students to run for class office or earn a spot on a sports team when a school grows as large as North Carroll could.

And both parents and educators argued that not building a new school in the North Carroll area would mean that their community's concerns were not taken as seriously as those of parents in Westminster and South Carroll, where overcrowding prompted the county to build two high schools in two years.

"The mean, median and mode of everything you have heard here tonight is that the school is five years late. Get it going," said Mark R. Jacobson, a statistics professor at Towson University, sparking a roar of applause from the audience.

School officials have described North Carroll's overcrowding problem as the most complicated they've tackled in years.

A surplus of a few hundred students typically would be solved by acquiring temporary classrooms or by redrawing attendance boundaries and shifting students to nearby, less-crowded schools. But in this case, North Carroll's core facilities -- its cafeteria, bathrooms and gymnasium -- cannot bear the crush of any more students, and the nearest high schools -- Winters Mill High, just outside Westminster, and Westminster High -- also face crowding problems. Although school board members agree that there are too many students at North Carroll, they remain uncertain whether there are enough to justify the construction of a new school to state school planners who approve such projects and to the elected officials who allocate funding for them.

"That would be just a wonderful solution," board President C. Scott Stone said of building an eighth high school in the county. "But I don't think the numbers are there to justify state [funding] participation, and I don't think the county can afford what would, by now, be a $40 million or $45 million project."

Stone and the other board members attending the public hearing -- Gary W. Bauer, Thomas G. Hiltz and Laura K. Rhodes -- said in interviews that they understand the desire for another high school.

"If I was living in the community, a new school would be my first choice, too," Rhodes said. "But unless we can find a magic wand to build it next year, we will have to talk about a multi-stepped solution.

"Even if we decided a new school would be built and even if we prioritize it as the first priority on our list, it would still be years down the road because of state laws requiring public bidding and plans that have to be looked at," she said.

Referring to one mother's incredulity that Wal-Mart can build a store in nine months, but that it takes four to five years to plan, build and open a high school, Rhodes added, "There are a lot of public requirements that we have to answer to that Wal-Mart does not."

Near the end of the public hearing, Leslie Harford, a mother of three in Upperco, stepped to the microphone to offer a mock incentive for school officials considering their options.

"The North Carroll community wants a new high school," she said, addressing the committee that studied the overcrowding. "And when a new high school is built, I will personally petition to get that new high school named after you."

A second public hearing to discuss options for relieving North Carroll's overcrowding is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of Winters Mill High.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker hopes to meet next with elected officials from Hampstead, Manchester and Westminster. He expects to recommend a solution to the school board by October, enabling board members to vote on a proposal by December.

Among the options being considered are building a new school, redistricting students to other schools, or running classes in shifts, either as a split day or year-round school.

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