After a lengthy education discussion that jumped around from quality of education to redistricting, funding gaps and facility usage, the Board of Carroll County Commissioners agreed to create a joint task force with the Board of Education to “get on the same page” in terms of finances and a comprehensive facilities study.
“I’d like to recommend that we put together this group to get a common set of numbers and projects we’re talking about and take a deep breathe before we launch into that [hiring a consultant to conduct a schools facilities study],” Commissioner Doug Howard said.
During the county budget cycle last spring, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners requested that the school system conduct a comprehensive facilities study to "assess the need for and proper utilization of the school facilities across the county over the next 10 years." In October, School Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said his staff had some aspects of a comprehensive study but there were parts, including the feasibility of closing schools, that would be better performed by experts or consultants.
Howard said he is concerned that the board of commissioners has been vague in its directive to the board of education to conduct a facilities study. Moreover, he said he is hesitant to spend money on a consultant to conduct a comprehensive facilities study because he doesn’t believe anyone is clear on the objectives of the study.
“I don’t think we’re clear in our messaging,” Howard said. “I think we’re about to waste a fair amount of money with this study.”
Commissioner David Roush responded saying that the board of education and school system staff has dropped the ball by not completing the study to look at excess capacity in the school system.
“The Board [of education] and school system need to look at capacities and address them,” Roush said. “They are not doing their job. They want us to make their decisions for them so when someone doesn’t like it, they can blame us.”
Before money is spent to conduct the study, Howard said the commissioners and school system staff need to clearly define goals.
“We need to be clear on what we are trying to do, the time frame we’re working in and how to balance the choices in front of us,” Howard said. “Are we trying to save a certain amount of money, to streamline, to avoid future capital costs? I think we’re going to look at this [results from consultant] and say we knew most of this already.”
Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said that it is necessary to hire a consultant to conduct a facilities study because it’s a very complex and tedious process.
“My concern is that every county we looked at that really seriously looked at closing a school used a consultant,” Guthrie said. “Every time you do this [close a school], the community gets enraged and so there’s an appeals process. If you haven’t addressed specific criteria to back up the decision, then it would not stand the muster of an appeal and [the process] would start over again.”
Commissioner Robin Frazier said that she had no preconceived notions when the board of commissioners asked the school system to conduct a comprehensive facilities study. Rather she said she just wanted to see how the school system was dealing with declining enrollment and to see what options might be available.
“My hope was to gather information so we could look at all facilities, think of possibilities and figure out how to better serve the children and come up with what funding you need in the future. At the end of that we might not even be talking about closing schools,” Frazier told Guthrie.
Guthrie said that the study is more about finding efficiencies across the school system and less about substantial budget reductions or savings tied to potentially closing schools.
“Closing a school as a way of filling that [projected education funding gap in next five years] doesn’t even begin to address the issue,” Guthrie said.
According to Guthrie, closing a school would not provide any substantial short-term savings as it would take at least several years to go through the process, which requires approval from the state of Maryland.
The board of education and board of Carroll County commissioners are scheduled for a joint meeting on May 8.
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