Board hearing is Monday on school closings
WORTON — The Kent County Board of Education will hold a public hearing Monday, Feb. 27 on its plan to close two elementary schools.
The hearing will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the auditorium at Kent County High School in Worton. Written testimony will be accepted through March 10; it may be mailed to the superintendent’s office at 5608 Boundary Ave., Rock Hall, MD 21661 or pyiannakis@ kent.k12.md.us.
The Board of Education is considering consolidating the district’s five elementary schools to three, closing Millington and Worton elementary schools. That would leave Galena Elementary School, Rock Hall El- ementary School and H.H. Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown.
The move comes after two decades of declining student enrollment throughout the district and the resulting loss of funding.
Superintendent Karen Couch first submitted the consolidation plan last year, but it was shelved during budget discussions with the county government. Facing a projected $2.2 million structural deficit for the 2017-18 school year, the board is again reviewing Couch’s consolidation plan.
“Left with few options, the Board of Education directed the superintendent to revisit prior consolidation data to consider school closure as
a means to address the projected structural deficit for fiscal year 2018,” states a 38page report Couch submitted last month offering her final recommendation and supporting data.
At a previous Board of Education meeting, Couch said her final recommendation cannot be substantially altered if a consolidation plan is to be submitted to the state by the April 1 deadline. If the board were to decide it wanted to close only one school, the consolidation process would reportedly have to start all over again.
Couch has said the school board can make minor adjustments, though, based on public testimony, such as shifting boundary lines for schools.
According to her report, public dialogue on declining student enrollment began in 2009, leading to the 2010 consolidation plan that saw the district’s three middle schools merge into Kent County Middle School in Chestertown.
“Economic conditions have not improved, and changes in community demographics have had a negative impact on student enrollment. Since the 2010 Consolidation Plan was approved, the school system has seen a decline of 324 students resulting in $1.9 million (loss) in state and local aid,” Couch’s report states.
The report states that prior to enactment of the 2010 plan, the student populations from Galena and Millington were combined. They attended elementary school in Millington and middle school in Galena. Galena Elementary was borne out of the 2010 consolidation plan.
Worton Elementary reportedly had the smallest student population in the district prior to the 2010 plan. New boundaries were established bringing students from the Chestertown and Fairlee areas to Worton.
“In fact, 51 percent of the students attending Worton Elementary reside outside the Worton community, as indicated by their home ZIP code addresses,” Couch’s report states. Additional Details
Couch’s plan addresses a number of issues resulting from closing two schools.
According to her report, transitional individual education programs will be scheduled for special education students who will be changing schools as a result of consolidation.
Not all students attend the schools they would normally be assigned to based on their home addresses. The report states that students with such out-of-zone requests for a school to be closed will automatically be reassigned to their “home school.”
Summer school programs will still be held at Worton Elementary this year.
As Galena Elementary would also become the home school for Millington students after consolidation, a committee will meet to discuss possibly renaming the school “to be more inclusive of both communities.”
In August, a district stakeholder committee will be established to look long term at the needs of Kent County Public Schools. Among considerations will be the future of the district’s central office, located in Rock Hall.
Should the Board of Education close schools, it can keep possession of the buildings and the land. It also may surplus buildings and the land, or just the buildings, back to the county.
“The committee will consider whether any closed school buildings or land should be preserved to address future needs of the school system,” Couch’s report states. Financial Considerations
The district receives funding primarily from the state and the county. The allocations are based on pre-set, per-pupil amounts under the state’s Maintenance of Effort requirement.
Should the number of students decrease, so too does the amount of funding the state and county are required to provide. That equates to the $1.9 million loss in aid Couch referenced earlier in her report.
There also is the state’s relative wealth calculation. Couch has said it is hurting the district as well because the wealth shown by the county is not represented among the school populations.
“The relative wealth calculation is determined by dividing the total assessable wealth by the number of students. Kent County’s total assessable wealth has held its position relative to the state, with declining enrollment each year, the denominator artificially inflates relative wealth ranking resulting in less aid,” the report states.
According to the report, Worton Elementary opened in 1969 and Millington Elementary opened in 1974. Both are in need of “complete modernization” and new roofs and HVAC systems. The price tag given for Millington Elementary is $6.9 million; it jumps to $7.4 million for Worton Elementary.
An issue that comes into play for projects like replacing the roof on a building is whether or not a school is at the state-rated capacity to receive capital funds. If a school is “underutilized” based on its SRC, the county would be on the hook for 100 percent of the roofing costs.
Worton Elementary is the only school approaching adequate utilization based on SRC, according to Couch’s report.
“The Superintendent’s plan will ensure three elementary school buildings are at adequate utilization,” the report states. “Based on enrollment capacities, three elementary schools will provide sufficient capacity to accommodate the elementary population for the next eight to ten years.”
The plan states that there will be minor renovations at the three remaining elementary schools to accommodate larger student populations.
Consideration in determining which school or schools to close also was given to transportation costs, as well as student ride times.
The report states that with the largest student population residing in Chestertown, closing Garnet would increase transportation costs. Likewise, transportation costs would increase if Rock Hall closed because it is the only school serving the southwestern portion of the county.
“This plan lessens impact on student ride times as elementary schools will still be located on the northeastern, southwestern, and central sections of the County. Target bus rides for elementary are one hour,” Couch’s report states. Millington Opposition
A group of Millington residents and town officials oppose the consolidation plan. They fear the loss of the school there will hamper development.
The group submitted an alternate consolidation plan that would see Millington Elementary remain open, while Worton Elementary and Kent County Middle School would close. Seventh- and eighthgraders would be moved to Kent County High School, which is at 58 percent capacity. Sixth-graders would go to elementary school.
On Feb. 14, the town council approved a resolution highlighting the important role Millington Elementary plays in the community and opposing plans to close it.
“Now, therefore, the Town Council of Millington resolves to condemn any move by the School Board of Kent County to close Millington Elementary School, and requests that the School Board of Kent County consider the aforesaid consolidation plan, any variation of that plan, or any other plan that does not result in the closing of Millington Elementary School,” the resolution states.
Couch’s report states that the high school building’s footprint is “not immediately conducive to housing and isolating a middle school population of 438 students.” The report states that about 30 dedicated middle school classrooms would be needed, while the second floor at the high school only has 12, including five science labs in full use by high school students.
Closing the middle school also would not result in any staff savings because those reductions in force were previously made with the 2010 consolidation plan.
In her report, Couch recognizes town officials’ efforts to revitalize Millington.
“The potential loss of a school in this community is of concern; however, it is strongly recommended that all stakeholders recognize the importance of building occupancy. The school could provide long-term benefits to the community if used to support a business, public library, YMCA, or provide services to the community at large,” her report states.
Staff savings alone in Couch’s recommendation to close the two elementary schools amount to $885,000; there are additional savings associated with not having to maintain the buildings. She previously said the total sav- ings — staff and buildings — associated with the alternate plan submitted by the Millington group are about $632,000.
“It should be emphasized closing one elementary school will not address the underutilization at this level and schools would not be eligible to receive matching state funds for capital improvements,” Couch’s report adds.
The Millington group argues that with word of a developer purchasing large parcels of land near town, the student population is likely to increase, “perhaps by substantial numbers.”
“While the school system and most residents would welcome growth, the reality is growth will not likely occur until economic conditions are improved within Kent County,” Couch’s report states. “The Board of Education and County Commissioners agree the potential for improved economic conditions exist; however, potential does little to provide immediate relief for the structural deficit projected for fiscal year 2018.” Consolidation Calendar
Following the Feb. 27 hearing at Kent County High School, the public will have additional opportunities to address consolidation with the Board of Education.
The school board will hold its regular monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 13 at the central office in Rock Hall. The school board allows for two periods of public comment during its meetings, one toward the beginning and one at the end.
A special meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 20, at which the school board is expected to vote on the consolidation plan. The meeting will open with a 30-minute public comment period followed by the board vote at 7 p.m.