Cumberland Times-News

November 20, 2013

Garrett officials hope state comes through with money to help keep schools open

Friendsville, Route 40, Crellin at risk of closure

Elaine Blaisdell
Cumberland Times-News

— OAKLAND — Garrett County Commission Chairman Robert Gatto, who serves as an ex-officio member on the board of education, made a motion at Tuesday’s commission meeting to designate $2.2 million to the board for fiscal 2015 with the amount to be reduced if funding is secured from the state. The motion died for lack of a second.

Gatto made the motion after numerous educators and residents pleaded that the commission provide a funding number.

“I came here tonight thinking we were going to get a number,” said board president Cynthia Downton.

Commissioner Jim Raley indicated that he would like to provide the board with a funding number Dec. 17.

“I’m concerned that we are going to walk out of this room tonight without some form of solution. I can tell you the board of commissioners is not prepared to give some kind of a number because I’m not sure what that number needs to be,” said Raley.

Both Gatto and Commissioner Gregan Crawford stressed the importance of a second meeting with the board to discuss funding and future needs of Garrett County Public Schools.

“We just can’t bridge over the funding another year. We really need to think about the sustainability of our school system and how much we need to act on the facilities and maintenence plan,” said Crawford.

Crawford asked for another meeting and Downton refused to meet with the commissioners without a funding number. Downton stressed that the number is needed to avoid going through the advisory process of closing schools, which is slated to begin in a couple of weeks.

“We need a number, then we will be glad to sit down with everyone. It is not our intent to be sitting here next year, I assure you,” said Downton. “Twice in the past, the commissioners have come forward with money ... after we have gone through that ordeal (of closing schools).”  

Without additional sources of funding, the board will begin the process for closing Crellin, Friendsville and Route 40 elementary schools. The closure would only close the $2.2 million funding gap by 84 percent, according to Gatto. During a recent board meeting, Gatto asked if $2.2 million would help stop the process of school closures.

“I don’t feel as a spectator in the audience that the answer was yes,” said Raley.

Superintendent of Schools Janet Wilson indicated that a discussion on the budget and the money making the school system whole were two different conversations.

“Two point two (million) stops everything, but then a budget has to come in,” said Wilson. “That ($2.2 million) would basically hold us at a status quo with us taking a look internally at what we are doing. I would like nothing more to avert the advisory process. We need to know the money is there.”

The actual decision on closing schools cannot be appealed, but the process can be appealed, according to Wilson. The board will not make a decision on school closures until April 22, which was done to allow time to see if money from the state can be obtained.

Both Gatto and Wilson feel certain that Sen. George Edwards will be able to secure some funding.

“I think we are going to see come cooperation from the state,” said Gatto.

The amount of money the state may provide will not be known until Dec. 15, according to Gatto.

“The problem, without the guarantee the board has to go on known information. The only information we have right now is we have a deficit of $2.2 million,” said Wilson.

If the board is given $2.2 million, it most likely wouldn’t be enough to restore some fundamental services that have been cut, like middle school art and music classes, according to Wilson.

The board is facing the funding gap because of a decline in student enrollment and how the state wealth formula works. The resource and staffing gap has been lessened because of $1.1 million in grants that the board has obtained, according to Wilson.

“At some point we have to right this ship and address our declining school population,” said Crawford.

Downton was disheartened that the commissioners think the declining enrollment trend is going to continue.

“I still have faith in economic development. I still have faith that we are going to bring families and children to this county,” said Downton. “I see us growing this system. Mr. Raley, I’m very upset that you said you think that there are kids that we don’t give adequate educations to.”

“It’s all kids,” said Raley in response to Downton. 

In a letter to the commissioners, Wilson indicated that intervention and academic intervention positions and services need to be restored to elementary and middle schools, respectively.

“That’s the point I’m trying to talk about when I make my comment about adequacy,” said Raley. “I’m not saying that our kids are getting an inferior education and that the teachers aren’t doing a great job. What I am saying is that I’m getting more and more concerned about the gaps.”

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.