Citing crowding, board votes for new high school

Project to take at least 4 years and $45 million

September 15, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

After delivering opening remarks last night that made it no surprise what their vote would be, Carroll County school board members unanimously accepted a recommendation to build a new high school to relieve crowding at North Carroll High.

"The board believes the severe overcrowding warrants an eighth high school in the county," board President C. Scott Stone said after the meeting that was attended by about 100 parents and students wearing red shirts and lapel pins made of black and red ribbons, North Carroll's school colors.

Some board members expressed concern about safety issues that arise from having more students than school capacity allows. But Stone pointed to steady enrollment increases as the most convincing reason to build the school. Student enrollment is "the only criteria the state goes on" when determining whether to fund new school construction, he said.

Enrollment rising

North Carroll High - a 28-year-old building designed for 1,360 students - had an enrollment of 1,709 as of yesterday. Enrollment is projected to hit 1,850 students by the 2007-2008 school year.

The earliest a new school could open is fall 2008, when North Carroll is projected to be about 40 percent over capacity.

With numbers like that to back them up, hundreds of parents and students have filled school board meetings over the past nine months and bombarded board members with e-mail and letters.

As a result, the superintendent formed a committee to evaluate the issue.

Everyone seemed to agree that something needs to be done about the crowding - not just at North Carroll in Hampstead, but across the county - especially in light of forecasts that residential development will continue to boost enrollments.

Funding question

Now that the school board has made its position official, the next step is figuring out how to pay for construction.

"Now comes the fun part of getting the funding" from state and local governments, said school Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, who recommended in June that the board approve building a school to relieve crowded conditions at three area high schools: North Carroll, Westminster and Winters Mill in Westminster.

Building the school is estimated to cost $45 million. To qualify for state assistance, school officials must demonstrate that the school would be 50 percent full at its opening and at capacity within five years.

Because the county school system calculates capacity using a different formula than the state, Maryland school officials might not accept Carroll's assessment that a new school is needed.

State's portion

If the state agrees to help fund a school, it typically provides about 65 percent of the approved cost, an amount that generally covers construction.

"Funding is going to be critical" to getting the school built, Stone said. "We will need your support."

He urged the audience to support the county commissioners in their efforts to secure state financial assistance, and asked them to back a possible transfer tax that would raise funds locally.

While the county commissioners have not taken an official position on whether the county can afford to pay for construction upfront, they have publicly supported the idea of doing so. If they chose that route, they would later seek reimbursement from the state.

"This is the first step of a long process," said Carmela Guthart, president of the North Carroll Middle School parent-teacher organization.

Setting priorities

Guthart said she and other parents would be at next week's board meeting, when members will prioritize the system's school construction projects. She said it is important to keep the building of the school in the top three, so that state officials will see it as a priority for funding.

Meanwhile, when board member Susan G. Holt suggested a short-term remedy to relieve crowding at North Carroll High by redistricting students, she was met with swift resistance among the audience.

But board member Laura K. Rhodes reminded them that redistricting is inevitable.

"When you get a new school, your children will be redistricted," she said. "You need to prepare your children for that eventuality."

But most in the audience favored portable classrooms over redistricting as the short-term solution. They are willing to wait, they said, for the new school.

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