Parent puts efforts into having high school built

Manchester mother has proven persistent

April 18, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When Carroll County leaders were struggling to persuade the state to help pay for an $18.2 million renovation project at North Carroll Middle School, Carmela Guthart lugged to Annapolis a suitcase full of letters from children describing the school's leaky roof, failed septic system and unreliable electrical wiring that sometimes forced teachers to unplug classroom appliances to run computers without interruption. The project got the green light.

Nearly two years later, in September, when a local golf course owner wouldn't sign off on easement agreements needed to start work on the school's behemoth modernization, Guthart staged a protest at the course's driveway and the deal went through.

Now, with crowding threatening her community's high school, the 40-year-old Manchester mother has a new mission: persuading county and then state officials to build a new school.

"They might as well build that high school right now," said Terry Lettah, a crisis counselor at North Carroll Middle.

But Carroll school officials say Guthart is not like the fist-pounding, rumor-mongering parent activists who have helped secure new schools for their communities.

Sure, she organizes letter-writing campaigns to public officials. She helped weave a successful web of community pressure against Oakmont Green Golf Club through telephone calls, letters, boycott bumper stickers, threats of canceled golf tournaments and the picket line. And when it comes to distributing information to parents, she can be unstoppable.

But the difference, school officials say, is that Guthart's information is accurate.

"The thing I always respected about Carmela is that whenever she gets involved, she gets informed," said Al Eilbacher, the school system's construction supervisor. "It always helps in a school construction project if the person respected by the community is well-informed. It's especially important in a project that has some delays associated with it."

And the North Carroll Middle renovation had delays.

The project had been on the books for 25 years but was never funded. Enter Guthart. She talks loudly, laughs even louder and seems to have an unlimited supply of energy, juggling her responsibilities as a mother, wife and president of North Carroll Middle's PTO with a 30-hour- a-week job as a home health nurse.

By January 2002, with the elder of her two daughters in seventh grade at the aging middle school between Hampstead and Manchester, Guthart had collected 500 letters to Maryland's Board of Public Works from elementary and middle school pupils. She filled a carry-on suitcase with the correspondence and toted it to Annapolis to support Carroll County's request for funding.

"It was like a scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," said Ray Prokop, the school district's facilities director.

In May 2002, when the governor announced $156.5 million worth of school construction allocations, a $2.5 million allotment for North Carroll was among them. Confident that the renovation had overcome its last roadblock, Guthart said, "I am thrilled to death."

But there were other snags.

Negotiations stalled between the county and landowners whose property would be dug up to lay sewer lines to the school. With the renovation a year behind schedule, the county filed condemnation lawsuits.

Guthart's disbelief was palpable.

"The renovation project is in litigation and could be delayed ... for several years or more!" she wrote to parents, inviting community members to pressure the two holdouts.

On the day of the protest in September, Guthart and the crowd of sign-carrying parents at the golf course's driveway learned that Oakmont Green and the last homeowner had signed the easement agreements.

Given her successes with the middle school project, school staff, district administrators and pupils are confident that Guthart will be able to influence the decision-makers tackling the crowding problem at Hampstead's North Carroll High.

This year, about 1,600 children attend the school built for 1,340, forcing administrators to convert offices and storage areas into classrooms, an unused stairwell into a storage closet, and a lightly trafficked hallway into an office. By fall 2007, the school is expected to have 520 to 710 more pupils than it has room for.

School officials agree that there are too many enrolled at North Carroll, but they remain uncertain whether there will be enough to justify building a school to state officials who approve and fund such projects.

After initially deciding to sit out this fight, Guthart decided she could not ignore it.

She began filing public records requests for enrollment and suspension data.

She helped spread the word last month about two public hearings. (Hundreds of people showed up.)

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