Committee focused on future of public schools
— Does the district have a new state-ofthe-art school on the horizon?
That is one option under review by Kent County Public Schools’ Strategic Planning Committee, which is working with consultants to prepare a plan for future uses of the district’s facilities.
“We’re looking at a sixyear plan. A lot of this is going to be dependent on available funds and when that could happen. But I think it’s exciting to be thinking forward and thinking about where we want to be as a county and where we need to be to be more efficient,” Superintendent Karen Couch told Board of Education members at their meeting Monday night.
Couch said the committee is considering a new middle school at the district’s Worton campus. She said another option would be adding a section to Kent County High School in Worton to house middle schoolers.
“I think everybody agreed that the high school population and the middle school population should be separate,” Couch said.
The committee held three community input sessions — each drawing about a dozen people — at the end of last month. On Sept. 25, the session was held at Kent County High School. Sessions followed at Galena and Rock Hall elementary schools Sept. 27 and 28, respectively. There also was an online survey for community members.
Among the decisions to be made are what to do with the now-vacant Worton and Millington elementary school buildings. Both closed this year when the district consolidated its five elementary schools to three.
There also are capacity issues at the three remaining elementary schools and the question of whether the district’s central office should continue to be in Rock Hall or moved to the Worton campus.
On Monday, Couch said no decisions have been made. The committee is expected to see a draft report prepared by consultants later this month.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement about the possibility of building something new and something potentially renovated,” Couch said.
It was at the first community input session in Rock Hall that the committee was presented with two leading ideas: house pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at all of the three existing elementary schools or move the middle school to the Worton campus, possibly in a new building.
Karen Gilbert, a teacher who previously homeschooled her two boys, spoke at a Board of Education meeting and at the community input session at Kent County High School. Gilbert led the charge for housing all students together through eighth grade in community schools. She said the model of separating sixth, seventh and eighth grades in their own school is failing.
“Something’s not right and it’s time for a big change, not a little one, personally as an educator,” Gilbert said at the Sept. 25 community input session.
Making the elementary schools pre-K through eighth grade received much discussion by the committee members when it convened at Kent County Middle School in Chestertown Sept. 29, but it was determined not to be a feasible option due to the lack of space already apparent at the elementary schools.
Besides building layouts, Couch spoke at the Sept. 29 meeting about the district’s challenges finding and retaining middle school teachers. She said that to have sixth, seventh and eighth grades at three schools would mean there would have to be three middle school teachers for each class.
“If we have more K-8 schools, then I have got to have more teachers and we’re in a teacher shortage right now,” Couch said. “I’m just being realistic about the challenges we’re going to place ourselves into.”
Committee member Joseph Harding, a retiree who previously served on a school board in New Jersey, raised concerns about the ages of the district’s buildings. The newest, Kent County High School, was opened in 1971, while Kent County Middle School was built in 1950 and underwent the most recent major renovation effort in 1976.
“At some point, do we spend five minutes talking about the fact that the kids that live here are never going to go to a school that’s not older than their parents? I mean, just as a general condition, does that make any sense to anybody?” Harding asked at the Sept. 29 committee meeting at Kent County Middle School.
Bryan Matthews, vice president of KRM Development Corp. in Chestertown, attended the Sept. 27 community input session at Galena Elementary. He questioned the timeline for a new school to be built in Kent County, saying that the life expectancy will start to come due on current facilities.
“I realize money is always the question,” Matthews said. “What is the 20-, 30- or 40-year plan of when a new school will come in Rock Hall or Galena or the high school? Because at some point, it’s got to happen.”
Others attending the Galena meeting voiced concerns about any idea of closing the three community elementary schools and moving all students to a central campus in Worton.
“When you close a smalltown school, it really, really hurts the town and the people,” said Galena Councilman Harry Pisapia.
For Matt Copsey, a member of the Galena Planning and Zoning Commission, the issue with losing Galena Elementary, where one of his children attends, is whether he and his family would opt to leave the area.
“I made the hour-and-a-half commute to Baltimore. I am the young family,” Copsey said. “If you guys start closing schools, a young family like me, I’m looking at ‘Well, why did I move here? Why would I stay here? I can’t work here. My kid can’t go to school here. What’s the point?’”
At the Sept. 28 community input session at Rock Hall Elementary, parent Gretchen Stroh had another idea for a unified campus in Worton. She asked about housing eighth grade at Kent County High School, with sixth and seventh grades at the nowshuttered Worton Elementary.
The future of former elementary school buildings in Millington and Worton is another focal issue for the committee. The district cannot sell the buildings or the land. If the facilities are deemed surplus, they are handed back to the county government to use or dispose of.
At the community input session in Galena, Karen Miller, a Millington resident whose children have graduated, questioned when the vacant school buildings would no longer be a taxpayer burden.
“I’d like to see those buildings be gotten rid of as soon as possible and save that money,” she said.
The committee heard a number of other possible uses for the buildings, such as moving the district’s central office out of a former elementary school building in Rock Hall to the more centrally located Worton Elementary building. For Millington Elementary, suggestions included a walk-in medical facility or a daycare center for children and adults.
Couch told the Board of Education Monday that the district cannot surplus the former elementary school buildings until it has a plan for the rest of its facilities.
Reconfiguring the middle and high schools — the district has just one of each — appears to be the leading subject for the committee.
Kent County High School currently houses somewhere around half the students it was built for. With all the spaces being utilized in the building though, the idea of putting middle schoolers there, just an eighth-grade academy or offices for district administrators and staff pose a number of challenges.
Committee member Tracey Williams is the district’s supervisor of student services and secondary education and the former principal of Kent County High School. At the Sept. 29 meeting, Williams said the building was designed so students could move fluidly through it. She said if middle schoolers were put there, major renovations would be required.
The continued use of Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown may also be in question if the middle school is moved to Worton. Committee members spoke about how limited the space currently is at Garnet Elementary.
Harding said Garnet Elementary could move to the Kent County Middle School building if it becomes empty. He said Garnet Elementary’s current building is likely the most valuable piece of real estate the district owns and with its current space limitations, may be the best to vacate and sell.
Board of Education President Trish McGee, a Chestertown resident, raised concerns Sept. 29 about vacating Garnet Elementary due to its historical legacy as an African-American school prior to desegregation.
“How do you think the African-American community will react to losing their last hold? I mean, I think that’s a huge factor,” McGee said. “Garnet is their school. It was an African-American school.”
Community and Kent County Board of Education Strategic Planning Committee members participate in a discussion Sept. 28 at Rock Hall Elementary School about the future use of district facilities.