Com­mit­tee fo­cused on fu­ture of pub­lic schools

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By DANIEL DIVILIO ddivilio@thekent­coun­tynews.com

— 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.”

PHOTO BY DANIEL DIVILIO

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.

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