Board hear­ing is Mon­day on school clos­ings

Kent County News - - FRONT - By DANIEL DIVILIO ddivilio@thekent­coun­

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@

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.

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